Which way for RCN?
Next week the Republican Communist Network is holding its annual general meeting. We will be discussing a number of amendments to the founding constitution and a new draft constitution produced by Allan Armstrong on behalf of the Scottish branch. All RCN members should thank Allan for the work he has put in on this. As Marxists, the best complement we can pay him is to subject his draft to serious criticism. We should start by identifying some key issues and problems.
No better place to begin than the Scottish Socialist Party's draft election manifesto: "We stand for a fully independent government in Scotland which has powers over the economy; the welfare state; taxation; employment and company law; overseas trade; interest rates; exchange rates; and defence." You could be forgiven for thinking this came straight from the Scottish National Party.
The SSP is clearly identified as a "pro-independence" party. It is now made clear that independence comes first, with the hope that this will eventually lead to a Scottish socialism. This aligns the SSP much more clearly with the SNP. It is the first step to political competition over who is the best fighter for Scottish independence. Scottish nationalism has already helped to split the Socialist Party/Militant. It is a barrier to unification with the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales. This is dividing the working class movement not in some vague future. It is dividing the opposition to Blair in concrete ways right now.
This adds to the problem of merging with the SWP. The current leadership of the SSP wants to build in defence mechanisms against the SWP, who might oppose the pro-independence policy. Such defences might make it difficult or impossible for the SWP to join. As has already been pointed out by Tom Delargy and others, this threatens the existing level of democracy already achieved in the SSP.
This poses difficult questions for the RCN in Scotland. The RCN has officially a neutral position on Scottish independence. This was a result of the political compromise on which the RCN was founded. But it is a compromise that can no longer hold. Waiting a year while we try to sort this out, as we did over international socialism, will undermine whatever credibility the RCN has built up. If the RCN faction inside the SSP takes no position in the fight for Scottish independence then it is has failed a major political test.
Equally we have problems in England. At the recent, and significant, Coventry conference of the Socialist Alliance (England) the RCN was absent. Not that RCN members were not there. All the officers and virtually all the leading members were present and actively engaged in the proceedings. But the RCN had no apparent role and no agreed policies. The Revolutionary Democratic Group comrades, for example, were agitating for a programme and the CPGB were aiming towards a revolutionary party. The RCN is not a vehicle for such agitation. The CPGB did advocate something close to RCN bullet points on 'international socialism' but unfortunately this was the only bullet point that RCN has not yet agreed!
If the RCN had been meaningful, it would have produced a bloc or an alignment involving the CPGB, RDG, Alliance for Workers Liberty and other RCN members. Some of this is down to a failure of organisation, but its roots are in a weakness of RCN official politics.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. The RCN was formed and has prospered in its own terms. We have nearly quadrupled our membership since we were set up. What was virtually a Scottish organisation in 1999 now has more members in England. The Scottish branch was able to intervene effectively in the SSP, especially at the last conference. The England branch was launched in a factional battle. But our problems were sorted by democratic means. Hence there were no splits, expulsions or resignations. On the contrary we have enjoyed a five-fold increase in membership.
Looking at this real progress might give rise to self-congratulations and pats on the back all round. But the political danger signs are staring us in the face. We may have changed the RCN since it was founded, but the world around us has changed even more quickly. We are now lagging behind. If this is allowed to continue the RCN is doomed. It does not possess the necessary politics to intervene in current developments in the SSP and the Socialist Alliance.
This leads us to the RCN constitution. Either it will be designed to allow and help us to get to grips with these political problems or it will be an additional barrier. This test should be applied to Allan's draft and any alternatives. It should be remembered that the RCN was not set up by democratic means. It was a negotiated agreement between particular organisations around five basic slogans of 'republicanism', 'revolutionary democracy and culture', 'workers' power', ('international socialism' or 'international socialist revolution' - to be decided) and 'world communism'.
The founder-members agreed with these slogans and invented a special procedure on the one slogan over which we disagreed. Anybody subsequently joining the RCN had to join the founding agreement. They had to agree with the slogans. The founding motions, passed unanimously, said exactly that.
The basic slogans are solid foundations and will be made more so when the last stone is put in place. But if we keep digging up the foundations to see how they are doing the whole house could fall down. The 'agreement' is what binds us together. At the same time we have to be able to develop the policies that are actually relevant on the ground. We should not be speaking of 'agreement' on new basic slogans. If the RCN is to move forward, it must make a successful transition from the original consensus and agreement to determination of majorities and minorities.
Now let us turn to Allan Armstrong's draft constitution. The first problem is that there is no accompanying paper to explain Allan's thinking and identify the specific problems that his constitution is designed to address. So we have to play the Sherlock Holmes and try to work backwards. We have to deduce what Allan is concerned about from the formulations in the draft.
What I see in this document is fear. It is a fear that the CT might be persecuted. It is fear that its importance might not be recognised, its members might be insulted and outvoted and its allies might be excluded, etc. In short it is a constitution in which some clauses are designed to protect the CT from the majority. We should not ignore comrades' fears, but we should not be a slave to them. Of course, if the minority is raised above the majority, we have moved to anarchism and bureaucracy. Such protection can only lead to the multiplication of rules, clauses and sub-clauses. This is true of bourgeois constitutions where every right given to the majority has to be matched by a series of get-out clauses with special powers, etc. No wonder only legal experts can interpret them. So we should keep it simple - a good rule, especially for a very small organisation.
The problem begins on the very first line, when we are told that the RCN was set up by the Campaign for a Federal Republic and the Red Republicans. The CT and the RDG were also represented there and played a full and constructive part in the negotiations. Why do we need such a list in the constitution, unless it is to give ourselves special moral authority as the founding fathers or the mothers of invention?
Next we come to the setting up of sections and branches. Five members can form a (national) section, but only two can set up a local branch. In the argument in the England section two members, allies of Allan's, threatened to go off and form a Manchester branch. It is a happy coincidence that this clause allows that to happen. But what happens, for example, if there are three people in Manchester who think forming such a branch would be a damaging political mistake? Do these comrades have any say? Does the collective, through the officers' and members' aggregates, have any say in such decisions or is it all down to individuals?
Next is the membership clause (section b). This clause contains reference to the basic slogans. Here the agreement to unite in a network all those who agree with the basic slogans has been watered down to read "broadly agree". What was clear is now more open to interpretation. Why would Allan, who voted for "agree" at the founding meeting, want this changed?
Allan came to England and recruited Barry Biddulph and Phil Walden, who did not agree with the founding slogans. Allan perhaps thought these comrades would be sympathetic to his Scottish workers' republic slogan. The new members immediately set to work to form a 'faction' and set up a rival meeting, only to be asked whether in fact they agreed with the basic slogans. Barry never gave the England branch a straight answer. Phil Walden to his credit did eventually admit the truth. He did not agree with republicanism or revolutionary democracy. The England branch took a sensible and pragmatic decision. It did not challenge their right to membership, but showed it would not tolerate continued disruptive activity. We resolved to learn the lessons and establish a proper democratic procedure for someone who wants to join in future.
Allan's conclusion seems to have been the opposite. He wants something softer so that those who do not agree with republicanism can say they "broadly agree" with the slogans overall. In my mind this is the kind of opportunism that says, 'Sign them up and don't worry about the political basis'. We have enough problems of our own, without bringing in those who do not share our aims.
An additional point in this clause says: "There is no single interpretation of these slogans." This is a case of stating the obvious; superfluous verbiage. We could equally have a clause saying there is no single interpretation of Allan's constitution. We could add such clauses to other sections. Of course it could be that a section of the membership thought there was only one interpretation and another section thought there were many. It would be important to have a democratic clarification. But this is not the case. There is not a single comrade who claims there is only one interpretation. This clause is therefore a piece of rule-mongering.
So what is the real reason to put these words in here? When Barry Biddulph was asked by the England branch if he agreed with 'republicanism' and 'revolutionary democracy' he made an "unsubstantiated allegation". He said that asking such a question meant that we were trying to force him to adopt one particular interpretation. This was simply untrue and has been pointed out repeatedly. No sensible person would put a clause in a constitution because Barry makes fantastic claims.
Added to this are the words, "Debate over these slogans is part of a continuous process". This is again either a truism and therefore superfluous. Or is its purpose to try to avoid 'moments of clarification' in a process, when there are votes on motions or theses? Again these words display a fear of the majority and an attempt to build defences against it.
Next we come to the question of voting. Members will be allowed to vote on matters covered in a five-point list - revising the constitution, changing the order of business, electing office bearers, electing the "Red Republican" (I think Allan means Republican Communist) editorial board, coordinating activity and solidarity actions. But this can only happen at general meetings, which seem to take place once a year. We are not allowed to vote in debates at educational meetings or under the basic slogans. Take the issue of republicanism. The constitution defines this as having no single interpretation. We will be able to discuss it continuously at meetings. But we will never be able to clarify what the majority or minority think about it. Take a slogan like the call for a Scottish workers' republic. If we try to find out if it is a minority or majority position it will be ruled out of order.
Finally under the conduct of business we have some extraordinary powers. Secretaries can refuse to circulate documents "which contain unsubstantiated allegations". The editorial board can also refuse to print such allegations. This should be called the 'cock-up or conspiracy' clause. Of course most allegations start life as "unsubstantiated". This includes all the allegations I am making against Allan's constitution. It is only through open polemic that we will learn which "unsubstantiated allegations" are true and which are false. But according to this an RCN censor will intervene to prevent us hearing and making up our own minds. Only the secretaries will see all materials and decide which we can or cannot hear about. Will we next have a classification of allegations - for 12-year-olds, those that over 18 can hear, and those we can only listen to with parental guidance?
Still we will be allowed to complain about such censorship at the next meeting. Members will then have to decide about the validity of allegations they have not heard about, in documents they have not seen. So the secretary will have to circulate the allegations before the meeting anyway. They will have to be circulated in a special mail-out, having been 'pulled' from the earlier one by the official censor. Here we are led to an even more bizarre conclusion. What happens if the secretary's allegation of an unsubstantiated allegation is itself unsubstantiated?
Finally we have a complaints procedure, h (v). If I allege there has been a 'cock-up or conspiracy' over the founding of the England branch then any member subject to this claim can demand it is dealt with at the next meeting. If I assault another member or engage in some other misconduct, there is no procedure for the victim to use. But I can complain if the member alleges I attacked them! And the secretary can refuse to circulate it, if he/she believes it is unsubstantiated! This has not been properly thought out, because it is based too much on the narrow concerns of the CT.
My general conclusion is that Allan's draft is too bureaucratic. But more importantly it would hinder us in getting to get to grips with the very real political problems we are facing at the moment. The RCN needs to take some big steps forward and this constitution would act as a break on the democratic process.