Choosing between two cultures
Paul Demarty says we have the opportunity to organise in a radically democratic fashion
At this weekend’s conference, Left Unity faces several stark choices.
Foremost among them is, of course, whether to continue to exist. LU was in part founded on the initiative of Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, key members of the anti-war movement and various anti-austerity fronts - along with one Jeremy Corbyn, then merely the honourable bearded leftie for Islington North. Now that he has gone on to greater things, does LU wind itself up? Does it carry on regardless? Does it shift its political basis radically to the left?
It’s a poser, dealt with elsewhere in this paper. We doubt the vote will go with comrades Salman Shaheen and Pete Green, and that LU will dissolve itself immediately - if only because many of the supporters of this idea will have voted with their feet already.
Should LU still exist on Sunday, there will be another significant decision to make - on the future of its constitution. There are, on the one hand, several tinkering amendments proposed to the existing version, and on the other, a new constitution and code of conduct proposed by the Communist Platform. Underlying this is another, more fundamental choice - between two political cultures.
The unresolved tension here is well enough exemplified if we revisit - again - the case of Laurie McCauley. The shortest possible sketch of proceedings is as follows: in the summer of 2014, a visceral dispute erupted in Manchester branch over Steve Hedley, a prominent left official in the RMT union dogged by allegations of domestic abuse. Laurie, a supporter of the Communist Platform, reported the proceedings - naming names - in this paper. He was then suspended unconstitutionally by the branch. Suspended he remained for a year and three months, before a disputes committee prepared to resolve the issue could be found.
The ban was (correctly) declared unconstitutional, as was the supposed right of branches to hold theirproceedings in secret. We have no idea whether DC members consider these two facts ‘good things’ - whether they consider the lack of an explicit provision affirming the right of LU bodies to keep their discussions private to be some kind of unfortunate oversight. But they called it as they saw it, within the letter of their remit, which is all one really needs from a disputes committee, and frankly compares very favourably to all those who put their oar in beforehand.
We have had persistent dishonest innuendo about supposed ‘bullying’ and ‘oppressive behaviour’ voiced against comrade Laurie, without anything so much as a concrete charge that it would be possible for a competent body to investigate. (Quite how seriously his Manchester tormentors take such allegations can be gleaned from the fact that all references to the bullying matter were deleted from the motion that formally suspended him, and that the latter was passed at the same meeting as a motion declaring branch affairs private).
Amazingly, this behaviour still continues on the part of some comrades. At the recent NC meeting in London, principal speaker Felicity Dowling said that a teacher had been hauled up in front of their head as a result of being named in the Weekly Worker. No names given; not even the name of the school, so an intrepid Weekly Worker journalist cannot even check up with the offending headteacher. In other words, further insinuations, innuendo and slander.
I use the latter word advisedly: were comrade Dowling to make a similarly vague accusation based on unnamed sources against, say, the robustly litigious George Galloway, she would be before the courts immediately and find herself on the hook for a lot of money by the time the plaintiff’s counsel had drawn breath.
We, of course, will do no such thing, for it is not in our culture. The name of our platform is a clue: we stand, as best we can, in the tradition of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Vladimir Lenin, among countless others, and the whole movement they attempted to build: for revolution, by the hand of the working class, against capitalism and the rule of the bourgeoisie. For these figures - who are no more than the marquee names of a time when our movement was making progress - the project had profound implications for organisational norms and political culture.
Above all, the communist movement was the first movement that had to be democratic in order to succeed. Its essential claims and objectives demanded it. We stand on a certain social base - the working class - which has only its own bodies and minds to sell. It is, in itself, objectively powerless. It obtains power by amassing those bodies and minds, through conscious, collective organisation and action. This can only be achieved through democracy. Cursed as we are with equality, there exists only one means for subordinating the individual to the collective: majority rule.
Majority rule, however, can only be real if majorities are mutable. There must be the possibility of replacing leading factions. This is simply a necessity for competent organisation. Even corporations have boards of directors and shareholders’ meetings for this purpose. For us, alas, the thing has to be managed democratically - which is infinitely harder. That means full liberty of agitation for minorities (and majorities!) within the organisation. Which in turn means full liberty of public criticism, of ideas and of individuals. We must unite in action, of course, and those who break this unity must be disciplined. But minorities will only feel morally bound by this discipline if they feel they have been given a fair shake.
All of this holds only on the basis of the aforementioned axiom - we seek the overthrow of capitalism by the conscious action of the working class. Any other class in history can perfectly well organise undemocratically (if it can organise at all). If we seek only to reform capitalism, then our objective necessarily involves retaining the state and its bureaucracy, never mind the private bureaucracies of capital, and thus to a certain point ‘leaving things to the experts’. If it is spontaneous rather than conscious action, meanwhile, then one may as well operate, like the Bakuninists, as an ‘invisible dictatorship’, setting things in motion behinds the back of the masses. Here, too, democracy is thoroughly dispensable.
As it happens, these are the three cardinal sins of our movement since its last period of relative health - class collaboration, statist reformism and action-fetishism. As an unavoidable result, it - and the wider workers’ movement - has become crippled with bureaucratism in various forms. Whether it is the ossified careerism of the social democratic parties and trade unions, the stitched-up internal life of what remains of the ‘official communist’ movement or the paradoxically dictatorial regimes that reign in small Trotskyist, Maoist and other sects.
In Left Unity, bureaucratism takes its own particular form. Officially, everything is almost hunky-dory: platforms in LU have the right to criticise the leadership in public, and (it turns out, a year and three months later) members have the right to report their branch meetings. Yet there remains enormous discomfort with these facts.
Some individuals, such as comrade Matthew Caygill in Leeds, have more or less demanded that organised groupings within LU silence themselves (democracy in this case meaning that everyone agrees with one M Caygill). Comrade Dowling is another, quite particular case. The most vociferous and tireless advocate of ‘safe spaces’ within LU, her efforts have so far come to nought. Yet the longer we put it off, apparently, the more bizarre her proposals get.
Having been rebuffed at LU’s first conference, comrade Dowling went away and came back with a beefed-up safe spaces policy, this time aimed for some reason at ensuring compliance with child protection legislation. A ludicrous manoeuvre at last year’s conference led to the policy again being rejected, with the Communist Platform’s code of conduct winning the plurality (but not majority) of votes. This time around, it has not got to conference floor thanks to technical cock-ups - although she did manage to get Liverpool to move a gutting amendment (46A) to the Teesside (Communist Platform) code of conduct. Besides asking Left Unity to maintain its “commitment to safe spaces” and wanting “a party-wide discussion” on the issue in the lead-up to the 2016 conference, the comrades want us to “produce procedures for younger members that meet at least statutory requirements for safeguarding.”
Comrade Dowling’s world view seems to be entirely filtered through the mindset of municipal child protection agencies. This is the predominant version of bureaucratism in Left Unity - the view that individual comrades are fragile, like small children, and so need to be protected. They must be protected, naturally, from ‘bullying’, which includes ... political exposure in the public press. In order to be so protected, however, a protector is required.
As in classical liberalism - no kind of democratic ideology - a body above the mass of individuals is required to enforce good behaviour. The individual, in defence of his or her rights, appeals to this higher power in order to be left alone. This is, in the end, the same world view as the official labour bureaucracy, which is reduced increasingly to legalistic resolutions of matters that would once have been settled through industrial action; and, further, the state bureaucracy, which will ensure ‘fairness’ in public affairs; and even the spooks, who only spy on our web traffic to keep us safe.
Those are the two options - the risks and rewards of democracy, or the benevolent protection of the bureaucracy. Either the downtrodden must be protected from the powerful, or they must, through struggle, become powerful. Left Unity has so far refused, definitively, to choose.