Openness is a weapon
The Weekly Worker’s commitment to open reporting on the affairs of the labour movement is not a fetish, but a political necessity, argues Paul Demarty
Last week we published a letter from a comrade Dave Gee (April 14), responding to Sarah McDonald’s defence of our earlier decision to quote comments made by Seumas Milne at the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy annual general meeting (‘Straight-talking left’, April 7).
This decision generated some controversy, as in the event TheDaily Telegraph cited us in order to red-bait comrade Milne. Comrade Gee finds himself sharing such misgivings: “Surely there’s a case for keeping much that is said in meetings private?” he ponders. “Otherwise you will end up with less than candid views being expressed and small cliques operating in a clandestine manner, for fear of allowing their plans to reach the ears of their intended targets.”
Such open reporting will also, for example, disrupt attempts to “replace certain Labour MPs” - and “at the end of the day, one would risk firing squads for revealing your side’s intention to attack the enemy at dawn during a war! The class war and fight for socialism is perhaps not yet at such a critical intensity, but how far do you go?”
Comrade Gee’s concerns are plainly sincere. Unfortunately, they are also wrong-headed in the extreme.
His first concern - that generalised open reporting will lead to clandestine cliques instead of people talking candidly in meetings - is a statement that has some evidence backing it (to which we shall return). Yet his conclusion is incoherent.
For without open reporting the meeting itself is functionally equivalent to the gatherings of an unaccountable clique. Who said what? What political dividing lines were there? Did a branch delegate defy the branch’s position on something? Anyone who was not at the meeting just will not know. The choice then is not between frank political exchange with private meetings, on the one hand, and open reporting of meetings with informal cliquery, on the other. We would be guaranteed to have cliques without openness in the movement - we may be able to avoid them if there is no expectation of privacy in political matters.
I said earlier that there was some evidence for the hypothesis that open reporting drives people to make real decisions informally outside of public view. It is here that we alight upon the most unfortunate feature of comrade Dave’s letter, in that it repeats almost exactly the language of British parliamentarians when the press first started reporting exchanges in the Commons.
They too complained that the presence of the gentlemen of the press would present an intolerable burden on MPs, who would not be able to speak with the ‘candour’ to which they were accustomed. For the aristocrats and bourgeois in parliament in the 19th century, that meant expressing ‘candid’ opinions about the scummy lower orders. If intemperate quotations ended up in TheTimes or elsewhere, who knows what working class agitation might arise?
It is perfectly true that, with journalists scribbling away furiously in the press gallery, the nature of parliamentary exchanges changed somewhat. Candour was replaced by bullshit; decision-making was shifted to backroom deals, to the courts and the corridors of Whitehall. Nowadays, you can live-stream parliamentary debates on the internet, and yet learn almost nothing.
It is hardly surprising, for capitalism was not overthrown by virtue of press reports of parliament, and capitalism works in part by the unequal distribution of access to information, just as much as it works by concentrating ownership of the means of production. Insider knowledge becomes itself a kind of pseudo-means of production; tight control of the ‘knowledge economy’ underlies the stratification of the workplace and the power of managers. At the level of the state, it ensures that only the representatives of the ruling class or classes may participate in effective decision-making.
Our aim is socialism - the rule of the working class. But for the working class to rule it must learn how to do so; which means practical and meaningful exposure to decision-making, both in the political and economic spheres. The fight for transparency in our own movement is fundamental to mass participation in politics, for it is only by the cooperative ‘ownership’ of information that a potential alternative ruling class can be prepared for power.
It is straightforward for the left to demand greater transparency from bourgeois politics (successes in this regard include, for example, the register of MPs’ interests, whereby we can make some kind of guess as to who is bribing whom in the Commons). It is even unremarkable when it comes to the most ‘bourgeois’ parts of our own movement. Nobody much objects to the reports made and widely circulated by comrades Ann Black, Christine Shawcroft and Pete Willsman of the proceedings of Labour’s national executive committee.
Unfortunately, the left’s interest in such transparency is shallow and instrumental, consisting only in wanting to ‘know what the enemy is up to’. The more fundamental point - that there is a bourgeois class interest in private communications among politicians, and a proletarian class interest in transparency - is missed; and therefore exposure of the opinions of people on our own side is viewed as treachery, not something that contributes to the strengthening of the movement.
What kind of revolution?
A minor negative effect of this approach, of course, is to provide evidence for the typical rightwing smear that the left operates fundamentally through conspiracy and dishonest means. Comrade Dave seems in some respects to believe this smear. He asks how practical it would be to report a meeting that decided to force the deselection of some Labour MP or - in extremis - organise an insurrection.
Here, we will make a brief historical digression. In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party met in Brussels and London for its Second Congress. It immediately split, dividing the predominant Iskra faction into a majority (the Bolsheviks) and a minority (the Mensheviks). Vladimir Lenin proceeded to write the pamphlet, One step forward, two steps back, in which he laid out in exhaustive detail the disputes at the congress. In the present context, the disputes themselves are not significant - merely the fact that they were openly reported on by the leader of the majority faction.
Not only that - Lenin’s preface sharply criticised other RSDLP factions for
the almost complete absence of an analysis of the minutes of the party congress ... The truly undeserved neglect of [the minutes] can only be explained by the fact that our controversies have been cluttered by squabbles, and possibly by the fact that these minutes contain too large an amount of too unpalatable truth ... If the writer of these lines only succeeds in stimulating the reader to make a broad and independent study of the minutes of the party congress, he will feel that his work was not done in vain.1
We highlight this episode not as a naive appeal to authority - ‘Lenin did it, so it must be OK’ - but because of its historical context. The RSDLP was meeting under conditions of the most acute tsarist tyranny. The 1st Congress ended with every single delegate being arrested and packed off to Siberia. The 2nd had to be moved from Brussels to London because the Russian government leant on the Belgians to kick the delegates out.
You could not imagine a worse situation, then, for political openness. Yet here we are - factional leaders giving detailed discussions of the controversies, and the party as a whole publishing stenographic minutes of the whole affair! They must have been mad. Except, of course, they weren’t: Russian social democrats were able to participate centrally in the 1905 events, and ultimately in the overthrow of tsarism and the birth of Soviet Russia 14 years later.
It is not hard to see why factions of the Russian social democrats might have been so keen to take the risk of political openness (and ‘risk’ is probably the wrong word, since we can be more or less certain that the tsarist police made a “broad and independent study of the minutes of the party congress”!) With congresses and other activity being conducted in exile, the leading figures had extra work to do to grow their influence over Russian workers; it is difficult to build your faction if nobody in St Petersburg knows it exists and why. They also had to curry favour among other parties in the International.
Finally, it is worth noting that, when it came, the October insurrection was a surprise to absolutely nobody. Lenin and others had been arguing the matter out in the public press. Trotsky was going to lead it. The date was set, and leaked by Zinoviev and Kamenev; and still the thing came off with barely a street scuffle. It was less an insurrection than a formality.
For reasons we will not go into here, it has become common on the far left to conceive of the revolutionary seizure of power as a direct military conflict between the workers and the state. Yet we have no interest in seizing power this way, simply because the state has bigger guns. Success in Russia came in large part because the Provisional government lacked an army prepared to fight for it at all. It did so because the Bolsheviks and their allies had broken the soldiers’ loyalty to the state.
The working class has as its prime source of power sheer numbers; it is from this vast mass of the population that the armed bodies of the state obtain their personnel. Our strategic objective is to build party-movements that command such vast support among the general population that the capitalists cannot rely on their own troops. If we succeed, we will be able to project the date of the insurrection and the phone numbers of the military committee on the side of the Houses of Parliament in letters 20 feet high, and still the only people to face a firing squad will be reactionary army officers.
Along the way, no doubt, there will be some occasional and incidental need for clandestinity. Yet we should view this as a sign of weakness. We should strive to make as much known about as much of our activity as possible. The maximum possible openness is a precondition for the mass socialist activity we need. Secrecy in political discussion, on the other hand, will build only ineffective or corrupt cliques.