Act in haste, repent at leisure

Network of Socialist Alliances launch

Pete McLaren, of the unelected Network of Socialist Alliances Liaison Group, makes the point that the “launch of any new political organisation necessarily involves a period of debating and establishing principles and structures” (The All Red and Green autumn 1998). He is quite right. An honest airing of different views on methods and perspectives, along with the most careful consideration of structures, is vital to the success of our common project. If we act in haste we certainly will repent at leisure.

However, the agenda proposed by the John Nicholson-Dave Nellist-Pete McLaren-Dave Church Liaison Group for the launch conference of the Network is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. Between comrade Nicholson’s opening at 10am and the close at 4pm there is only the most minimal space allotted for discussion (and even that relies on things starting on time). ‘Star’ speakers have been given the bulk of time available. Even then coordination and coherence is woefully lacking. They will be talking on all manner of unrelated subjects - ‘Our future aims, methods and perspectives’, ‘The importance of the green dimension’, ‘Our structure’, ‘Low pay’ and ‘Europe’. The top dominates. Discussion below, from the actual political forces that make up the Socialist Alliances on the ground, is to be kept to soundbite moments by atomised individuals (as if most comrades are not members of and loyal to this or that group). For example, though the Communist Party of Great Britain has presented an alternative set of draft rules, we have not been approached to provide an authoritative speaker who can explain and answer questions about our proposals.

When it comes to the crucial question of structure, discussion is squeezed into the morning session. And that along with two other items and a coffee break! Including time that must be put aside for voting on amendments, etc, that gives the launch conference of the Network something like 30 minutes to thrash things out and come to a binding agreement (no matter how ‘provisional’).

New Labour might operate in such an outrageously undemocratic manner. Being a clever politician though, Tony Blair goes to great lengths to give the appearance of consultation. Arthur Scargill would however certainly feel no compunction about openly imposing such farcical limits on his Socialist Labour Party. And this labour king has a 3,000 bloc vote in his back pocket.

But the Socialist Alliances are a new, and hopefully genuinely democratic, political formation. They are moreover made up of very diverse elements and traditions. History has separated us for many decades. The suggestion that left social democrats, socialists, Trotskyites, communists, green socialists, etc can be united under the umbrella of one organisation, after we have been given half an hour between the lot of us to debate and decide, is as ludicrous as it is insulting. The agenda must be changed.

Frankly instead of dumbly listening to Unison’s Jean Thorpe on low pay or Pat Byrne on the greens we should have a full, no-holds-barred debate between our real forces on methods, perspectives and structure. The fact that the Liaison Group is beginning in such an insensitive, top-down and bureaucratic fashion bodes ill. This is not the way to build trust, overcome division and foster unity in action.

If the Liaison Group’s proposed ‘Opening statement’ and associated draft structure - ie, programme and rules - was soundly based on working class socialism, inclusive democracy and organisational flexibility, there would still be a great deal of work to be done. The devil is in the detail. Regrettably that is not the case however. What the Liaison Group has drawn up is politically flawed, not to say organisationally anarcho-bureaucratic (see p6 of Weekly Worker).

Let us begin with politics. Evidently the Liaison Group owes more to Proudhon than Marx, more to the abstract than the concrete, more to the green than the red. Nowhere in the ‘Opening statement’ do we find a positive reference to the term ‘socialism’. All we are told is that Labour has abandoned “whatever aspiration” it had toward ‘socialism’. ‘Socialism’ is also missing from the proposed ‘aims’. The sole mention of socialism in the Liaison Group’s rules/programme is a meaningless and passing phrase contained in the ‘membership’ section of the draft structure. “The Network is politically pluralistic and encourages all individuals, organisations and groups to participate fully in our vision of a socialist society and our way of working in an alliance.”

What sort of society does the Liaison Group envisage? The ‘Opening statement’ gushingly promotes fairness, social justice and equality. It declares that society should be “fair and truly sustainable”. No society, it ought to be stressed, has proclaimed itself unsustainable or under the protection of injustice. Elsewhere, in the same abstract spirit, we are told that capitalism is to be replaced “with a popular republic, based on democratic ownership and control of the key sectors of the economy, a system based on social justice and ecological sustainability”. Later in the ‘aims’ this society is defined as incorporating “participative and accountable” democracy, the “maximum freedom”, the “full return of all wealth generated” for the people, the “promotion of peace, nationally and internationally”.

The Liaison Group also wants to guarantee and “where necessary” restore “such biological diversity as is essential to the viability of both global and local ecosystems.” Does that require the depopulation of London and allowing the Thames to flood low lying areas in the name of restoring the “local ecosystem” to its supposed pristine glory? Surely people come first for socialists, not some imaginary and reactionary concept of ‘nature’.

The Liaison Group is committed to a half-baked ethical or sentimental socialism. There are countless banal platitudes about ‘justice’, ‘fairness’, ‘freedom’ and ‘ecological sustain-ability’. But the class struggle is absent. Indeed both the term and the concept of the working class has been exorcised. And as Karl Marx once observed: “Where the class struggle is pushed to the side as an unpleasant, ‘crude’ phenomenon, nothing remains as the basis of socialism but ‘true love of the people’ and empty phrases about ‘justice’” (K Marx MESW, Moscow 1975, Vol 3, p92). In the realm of reality, of course, socialism without the rule of the working class can only exist as its opposite: eg, Stalin’s USSR, Attlee’s Britain, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Olaf Palme’s Sweden.

In contrast to the Liaison Group, the CPGB’s proposals make it absolutely clear that the Network of Socialist Alliance is an alliance of socialists. Not all greens or direct action people are socialists. Some are liberals. Others are conservative. As a movement the greens contain red-green critical-utopians who are sympathetic to socialism, alongside deep-green anti-socialists and even overt fascists: eg, David Icke, the Third Wave, etc. Common to them all however is a neo-Malthusianism that sees human beings as the problem. For example the Green Party is programmatically committed to reducing the population of Britain by something like 20 million. (Would that necessitate immigration controls to keep in check that ‘sustainable’ level?)

Needless to say, the CPGB is not opposed to the affiliation of green organisations and individuals who declare themselves socialists. Indeed such affiliations are to be positively welcomed. But it does not follow that the CPGB is committed to a red-green alliance. We envisage a united front of socialists. Not, it should be stressed, on some lowest common denominator basis. Nor in order to end polemical exchanges. The CPGB fights for the highest organisational and political unity. That necessarily requires constant political debate, criticism and self-criticism.

The CPGB draft straightforwardly and scientifically defines socialism. It is democratic. It is “conquered by the working class”. It is international. However, socialism is not something to be piously preached at rallies, conferences and meetings. It is the result of the class struggle for democracy in the here and now: ie, under capitalism. That is why the Network should be committed not to airy phrases about ‘justice’ and ‘equality’, but the “fight for the maximum democracy under existing social conditions”. Specifically the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and all constitutional privileges, the unity of Ireland, the right of Scotland and Wales to self-determination within a federal republic.

Where the politics of the Liaison Group are daft, the comrades’ proposals for the Network’s structure are perverse to the point of being dangerous. There is every possibility that in practice they would fail to achieve the convergence of participating individuals and organisations that is stated as the desired objective. Quite the reverse.

The Liaison Group makes much of its commitment to bringing about a “balance” between “smaller groups and individuals” and “larger organisations”. The former should be given “sufficient influence,” and the imposing of policy on “local alliances, national organisations and individuals” needs to be avoided. Later, under the title of ‘structure’, this supposed inclusiveness is elaborated.

The Network “must reflect and encourage concrete liaison between all socialist, green, direct action and other radical groups and individuals”. The Network “should be a confederation of local alliances ... with safeguards to ensure a balance is struck so that smaller groups and individuals have sufficient representation alongside larger organisations, alliances and parties with guaranteed rights for individuals and minorities”. Superficially very worthy and laudable. It is strange then that the Liaison Group now objects to “automatic representation on affiliation”, all the while citing the necessity for an organisation “which is dispersed and is not hierarchical whist being representative of the diverse nature of opinion within the Network”.

So what is being proposed by the comrades? The Network is not actually to be a “confederation” of political groups, parties, etc, and socialist alliances. It is to be a hybrid party, in essence made up of individuals who might or might not be members of various other organisations or local alliances. Presumably the supreme body of the Network is to be the annual conference. In terms of voting it will consist entirely of individual members. Obviously this will introduce a strong geographical imbalance. Those living near the conference will find it easy to attend. Those living far away will not. That is why a system of elected delegates is far more democratic. The CPGB proposes a heavy bias towards delegates from local socialist alliances, while ensuring that all political groups have a voice.

The Liaison Group’s annual or special conference can change the structure of the Network ... “provided such a resolution receives two-thirds of the votes at such a meeting”. Why not a simple majority? That is what the CPGB wants. Their conference also elects a 15-strong Liaison Committee. Affiliated organisations and socialist alliances “make nominations” - no more. Five officers are to be directly elected. Like the rest for a one-year fixed term (they are not removable or replaceable). The other 10 are to be elected via a weird and unworkable system of electoral colleges. Here the proposals descend into farce.

Five places are for “local Alliances” (‘organisation’, point 2). Yet we have been told under ‘structure’ that these five places are to be “elected by local Alliances” ... remember, this at a conference consisting entirely of individual members of the Network. The same unthought-out mix-up is applied to “national organisations and parties”. Their three places on the Liaison Committee are to be “elected by national organisations and parties” ... this when national organisations and parties as such are unrepresented. We now come to the two places “directly for individuals”. They will, yes, be “elected by ballot of individual members”. How do they differ from other individuals who are also elected by a ballot of individual members? The Liaison Group implies that with these two places the mass of individuals are thereby represented. Such a preposterous notion is an insult to the intelligence. This is the sort of rubbish peddled in the past by anarchists like Bakunin and today by Thatcher, Blair and the free-market right. Apart from the rich, individuals can only be empowered through subordinating themselves to collective organisation. For socialists that should be ABC.

The Liaison Group system is not only an nightmare - it is bureaucratic in the extreme. And far from guaranteeing minority rights and representation for small groups, the opposite is the case. What we have before us is an annual poll whereby any political bloc that can muster or negotiate, through some backroom deal, 51% of the votes of those who turn out or are bussed in for the day can dominate the whole Network. Such a political bloc chooses all five officers. It chooses all five places for local Socialist Alliances, the three for national political organisations and parties and the two other individuals. Hypothetically a 49% minority, consisting of bigger or smaller groups and organisations and individuals is thereby excluded. The 51% majority can then go on to to boost itself by coopting five more individuals according to its whim to “ensure effective liaison” with Socialist Alliances in Scotland and Wales, direct action campaigns, the green-left, etc.

The Liaison Group makes matters worse by inserting a clause which bureaucratically limits the influence of political organisations. No one political organisation “shall have more than 30%” of the Liaison Committee “or of any other elected body within the Network”. Furthermore it is laid down that “the organisations as a whole shall not have more than 50%” on any committee.

A number of questions immediately arise. Is the Liaison Group proposing that affiliated socialist alliances operate according to this system? If so it is a monstrous imposition. Roughly speaking, the London Socialist Alliance steering committee is attended by delegates representing half a dozen political groups and a similar number of local Alliances. Apart from one person I can think of they are all in political parties or groups. Should we turn them away? The logic is that meetings could only proceed with two comrades present ... even that would violate the letter of what is being put forward by the Liaison Group. In a meeting of two 50% would come from one political organisation. The idea is a pure nonsense.

As to the Network itself, the system is totally undemocratic, not to say deranged. Voters in any democratic system must be free to elect whomsoever they wish. How would the Liaison Group’s dystopia be made to work in practice? Would successful candidates be declared null and void and be turfed out because they took the quota of political organisations above 50%? Who decides? Would the list of nominations be policed by the incumbent Liaison Committee? Is that why under ‘membership’, clause 5, there is the demand that membership of “groups and organisations, whether affiliates or not” must be declared “on application/renewal of membership of the Network”? The whole approach stinks. Then there is the loss of talent. Surely there is a general tendency for those who are organised to be more politically advanced, dedicated, experienced and - crucially - more representative. Either way, there should be free elections.

Obviously the Nicholson-Nellist-McLaren-Church Liaison Group is haunted by the presence and proposals of the CPGB. Our draft rules stand firmly for all-embracing democracy and against exclusion. The aim is to formalise the structures of the Network along the lines of the flexible, combative and inclusive democracy practised by the soviets - or workers’ councils - during and immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917. John Reed, the celebrated US communist, rightly described the soviets as “the most perfect organs of working class representation”. There might be no revolutionary situation in Britain. Nevertheless the system of elected delegates and recallability can serve the Network of Socialist Alliances admirably.

Every affiliated national political organisation should have the right to send one instantly recallable delegate. That would admit the proposed Scottish Socialist Party. Automatic representation would thus really reflect our range of affiliations and allow “concrete liaison” between socialist political groups across the whole of the UK state. However, the Network should fundamentally be based on local, city and regional Socialist Alliances. For every 100 members Socialist Alliances should be able to elect one - recallable - delegate. Where local Socialist Alliances fall below this figure they should group into regions (which, as Wales has already done, must be free to form if they so wish). Here in Socialist Alliances individuals can be really represented. Crucially the CPGB’s plan allows for the speedy and full reflection of growth, priorities and changed political complexion. Representation comes with affiliation, not a benign vote by the whole. There would be no fixed terms. Hence a new affiliate would not wait in purgatory before finding whether or not this or that majority permits it to take a seat on our Liaison Committee. Cooption is something to be avoided at all cost. As a system for the Network it is prone to terrible abuse by a determined clique (a majority of one can be built into something totally unassailable using such a device).

Organisations, not lone individuals, must be central. Hence, if a comrade representing a political organisation on the Liaison Committee was assigned to another task they can be substituted, without fuss or bother, by their organisation at a moment’s notice. The same goes for a Socialist Alliance. If the political balance swings this or that way it will quickly find its reflection above. Likewise if there is growth. In other words no need for the cumbersome, tortuous and absurd annual Network elections as proposed by the Liaison Group - or the generosity of a 51% majority.

The CPGB plan applies the same flexible practice to officers. Treasurers, editors, chairs, coordinators, trade union organisers, etc should be elected when and where needed, not according to some snapshot popularity poll by an atomised membership. The mayoral or presidential system has no legitimate place in our tradition. It breeds arrogance. We need another Arthur Scargill like a hole in the head. Officers should be strictly accountable to their peers. They should be elected and replaceable by those whom they work alongside. If a comrade drops out because of illness, disillusionment or family pressures, another comrade can be elected. By the same measure those officers who fail or who become isolated from an emerging political majority can be replaced without humiliation or a full-blown special general meeting.

Our plan roots the Network in the actual politics of its base. Minorities are really guaranteed representation and rights. What happens below is almost instantly reproduced at the top. If there is a shift to the right in our affiliated membership, that will see a shift to the right above. The same applies if there is a shift to the left. So the CPGB stands for the right of the minority to become a majority and the right of the majority to take the leading positions ... but not through exclusion.

That brings me to the numerous clauses contained in the Liaison Group’s document which insist as a matter of rule that membership of the Network is confined to those who “agree to join in working together in non-sectarian, cooperative and positive ways”. Affiliation

“assumes a commitment to an anti-sectarian and cooperative way of working, looking to build unity rather than set out a position to create discord, positively supporting and encouraging the notion of alliances and ensuring that any critical debates are conducted in a positive manner and without personal attack” (‘membership’, clause 4).

Such clauses are sinister. ‘Sectarianism’ is in the eye of the beholder. It is one of the most misused words in the lexicon of the workers’ movement. It is flung about as an insult by the those on the right against every critic, every thinker, every group on the left. Sectarianism is wrongly equated with principle and lack of mass membership.

Sectarianism is actually putting the interests of the part above the whole. Something encapsulated in right social democracy - from its inception it promoted the interests of the labour bureaucracy above those of the working class. True, small left and revolutionary groups often exist as mere sects: ie, organisations whose sole reason for existence is the promotion of some special philosophical discovery or unique ideological world view. The SWP and the Socialist Party in England and Wales being the most prominent examples. The former insists that members spout Tony Cliff’s theory of the USSR as state capitalism. The other “small mass party” too allows no serious public difference: eg, over Scotland. But this sort of ‘honest’ sectarianism cannot be abolished by decree. It can only be overcome through joint work, open debate and the growth of trust. Ending sectarianism must be seen as a process, not an unconditional demand.

As to critical debate being “conducted in a positive manner and without personal attack”, this is surely a euphemistic code which would allow a majority to purge or witch hunt any dissenting minority that is considered a nuisance or a threat. Is this article “positive”? It will, I sincerely trust, “create discord”. And the author makes no apology for attacking individuals whose actions or ideas are considered wrong. Though when it comes to invective, compared to outstanding theorists like Marx, Engels and Lenin, we are politeness itself. Marx was famously described by opponents as an insult on legs. His ruthless method of exposing what is ridiculous by making it appear ridiculous is nevertheless the tradition we proudly stand in and seek to emulate.

However, it is not a one-way affair. The Weekly Worker carries attacks on our political opponents and attacks on our leading writers by political opponents (as is their right, Toby Abse of the Independent Labour Network and Nick Long of the Socialist Democracy Group have recently railed against John Bridge in these pages).

Am I being paranoid with talk of purging and witch hunting? Hardly. Certain forces fear and loathe the CPGB simply because it engages, as a matter of principle, in open polemic. Unfortunately amongst them must be included comrade Nicholson, Liaison Group chair and coordinator of Greater Manchester SA.

Using “non-sectarianism” and the demand for “positive debate”, he staged a democratic coup against inclusive democracy earlier this year. With an unholy coalition of Socialist Outlook, SPEW and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty he saw to it that the CPGB and its representative were thrown out of the Greater Manchester SA at the May 16 annual conference. So much for tolerance, uniting on the so-called 80% and guaranteeing the rights of minorities.

Comrade Nicholson ran the meeting in a fashion that is a cause for concern when it comes to September 5 in Rugby. Even Scargill would have blushed with shame. Originally billed as an all-day event, it was arbitrarily cut in half. Naturally the time he allowed himself was not reduced. Nor was that of the ‘guest speaker’ - Spencer Fitzgibbon of the Green Party. But no doubt, as intended, it did spell disaster for ‘debates’ on motions and amendments. They were limited to one minute per comrade. The clock was also used to prevent those standing for committee elections from addressing the meeting.

We say, never again. The Network must be defended and built as an inclusive project. Leave anti-communist witch hunting to Scargill and the SLP. Our strength is unity.

John Bridge, CPGB representative
London Socialist Alliance ad-hoc steering committee

Proposed rules submitted by the CPGB


The following represents arrangements to allow socialists and socialist organisations to work together in agreed common actions. It is recognised that differences will exist. This should not be a barrier to electoral arrangements, campaigning or open and frank exchange of views. The Network will encourage and facilitate debate and the process of clarification. Our principle is inclusion, not exclusion. Through joint work and no-holds-barred discussions it is hoped that the individuals and groups involved will move closer and towards a higher organisational structure.

Clause 1 - Name

Network of Socialist Alliances in the United Kingdom (hereinafter called the Network).

Clause 2 - Objectives

1. To bring together through affiliation national, regional and local political organisations and individuals for the purpose of establishing a socialist society. The Network considers:

      1. Socialism and democracy are inseparable.
      2. Socialism is conquered by the working class. It cannot be delivered from on high.
      3. Socialism is international or it is nothing.

2. The Network will fight for the maximum democracy under existing social conditions: ie, capitalism. In particular:

      1. Abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and all constitutional hereditary privileges.
      2. For a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. For the unity of Ireland. For the right of Scotland, Wales and Ireland to self-determination.
      3. For the closest political and organisational unity of the working class.

3. To work with other national or international organisations in pursuit of these objectives.

Clause 3 - Membership and membership conditions

1. Membership of the Network shall consist of:

      1. Affiliated national organisations.
      2. Affiliated local and regional organisations.
      3. Local or regional Socialist Alliances.
      4. Individual members where there is no appropriate Socialist Alliance.

2. Membership shall be open to all who agree to the rules and accept the objectives of the Network.

Clause 4 - Subscriptions

1. Annual membership subscription shall be as follows:

      1. Affiliated national organisation - £50;
      2. Other affiliated organisations and Socialist Alliances - £20;
      3. Individual member - £10 (£5 concession).

2. Where an organisation or individual fails to renew their annual subscription their membership shall be deemed to have lapsed after one month.

Clause 5 - Organisation

1. There shall be an annual conference called by the Network Liaison Committee or a special conference at the demand of one-third of affiliated Socialist Alliances.

2. The annual conference of the Network shall be open to individual members and individual members of affiliated organisations, but voting delegates shall be on the following basis:

      1. Affiliated national organisations: two delegates.
      2. Affiliated local or regional organisations: one delegate.
      3. Local Socialist Alliances: one delegate per 10 members.
      4. Regional or metropolitan Socialist Alliances: one delegate per 100 members.

3. The role of the annual conference shall be to:

      1. Debate and express a view of political questions;
      2. Change the rules and objectives of the Network.

4. The Liaison Committee shall be responsible for the administration and day-to-day running and promotion of the Network. The Liaison Committee shall elect and remove officers as it so chooses. The Liaison Committee shall consist of elected and recallable delegates on the following basis:

      1. Affiliated national organisations: one delegate.
      2. Regional, metropolitan and local Socialist Alliances: one delegate per 100 members.

5. The Liaison Committee shall present audited accounts to the conference.

6. Standing orders for the purposes of conducting the annual conference and the Liaison Committee may be adopted by resolution of the annual conference.

Clause 6 - Electoral arrangements

The Network shall facilitate and coordinate the electoral work of regional and local Socialist Alliances. It shall encourage the biggest possible socialist challenge in local, regional, national and European elections.