Updating our structures
Debate is now beginning in earnest on the Socialist Alliance?s post-general election structures. There will be a national membership conference in London, probably on December 1 (perhaps also encompassing December 2). Logan Hall is a suggested venue. It has the capacity to seat 1,000 people. This weekend?s Liaison Committee is set to decide the issue and map out a timetable for contributions and amendments.
Almost everyone agrees that the present state of affairs is woefully inadequate. The Socialist Alliance has grown in leaps and bounds in terms of both membership and influence. When the Socialist Workers Party threw in its full weight, that was a qualitative advance. So too was the June 7 general election campaign. There were 98 candidates and some 57,000 votes. Hundreds of recruits signed up. Scores of new branches sprung into existence. Garnering trade union support is now within our grasp.
Nevertheless as an organisation the Socialist Alliance is a ramshackle affair. Finances are precarious, the membership system bizarre. We are a registered political party, but have no press and no full-time staff. Scotland and Wales are treated as foreign countries due to a combination of petty nationalism and inverted English chauvinism. Elected officers are as a body amateurs and wield little authority. The whole is mired in poverty, the parts are awash with riches. Between them the six principal supporting organisations produce six rival flagship publications: three weeklies, one fortnightly and two monthlies. Besides that they employ a posse of full-time workers and run four commercially viable printshops.
Furthermore the second biggest supporting organisation has been diluting or actively sabotaging common efforts. Eg, running a semi-detached general election campaign. There is also an effective boycott in place across whole swathes of the country. Worse, far worse, in the London borough of Hackney, Socialist Alliance candidates find themselves opposed by supposed allies. Such a woeful state of affairs is never tolerable and must be ended as soon as feasibly possible: ie, December 1.
Showing the continued political immaturity of the Socialist Alliance or/and the patronising attitude of some key comrades, there is a proposal to launch the conference with a rally and invited speakers from Scotland, Europe and ?elsewhere?. Fine and dandy for the uninitiated. But what about the necessity of a full, honest and, if need be, exhaustive debate on the pressing matters that face us? Our deep divisions ought to be treated seriously. So too should our membership.
True, the question of structure might be viewed as dull, convoluted and altogether secondary. Only though by demagogues and the determinedly naive. Those Leninists amongst us will inevitably recall the famous debate on membership criteria at the 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party which first revealed the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.
What sort of structures we adopt, or aspire towards, will reflect our programmatic goals and must shape the whole future of the Socialist Alliance. By taking a wrong course, or leaving things as they are - which actually amounts to the same thing - the whole SA project could shatter or simply wither and die. With the right structures - backed as a matter of urgency by the right common programme - the historic chance exists whereby the left can be solidly united and built into a viable mass alternative to Labourism.
The Socialist Alliance has too often been blighted by three-minute limits on speeches. Vital debates cut short due to lack of time. Decisions have therefore been made by bloc discipline, not Socialist Alliance democracy. So our voice will be raised in favour of providing as open-ended an agenda as possible in order to properly explore the different alternatives on offer. Backroom deals have their place. However, decisions should properly be made by our membership on the basis of a full exchange and full information. Instead of diplomatic greetings from goodness knows who and then cramming in campaigns on the environment, the next round of elections, discussion about a publication, etc, let us concentrate on this single issue of structure. Here - if we have a one-day conference - less really is more.
Already the basic lines of demarcation are clear. Apart from Mike Marqusee?s ?Charter of members? rights?, which is essentially uncontroversial and only indirectly structural (see Weekly Worker July 12), there have been five submissions. They are from Martin Thomas (Alliance for Workers? Liberty), Dave Church, John Nicholson, Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance and the CPGB. Three unwittingly put the interests of various parts above the whole and broadly represent articulations of federalism from the strong to the weak; the contribution from Dave Nellist?s base area - ie, Coventry - calls for ?progress? at the rate of the slowest part and preservation of the status quo in the meantime; only the final submission in our list, the CPGB?s, is unashamedly democratic and centralist. We shall briefly discuss these submissions each in turn, kicking off with Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance.
1. Coventry and Warwickshire Socialist Alliance
Its July 2 meeting passed by a clear majority a resolution expressing concern ?about rushing into any decisions?. Instead of agreeing anything the planned conference in December should represent nothing more than the ?starting off point of the discussions on any changes to our national structure?.
Although citing difficulties local Socialist Alliance branches might have in submitting amendments, individual involvement, etc, the real agenda is readily admitted: ?Major differences and tensions exist between our various affiliated political organisations.? These apparently ?reflect very different approaches to building socialism and represent the deeply held views of different political groups who genuinely want to work together?.
Put another way, here we have on display a backward coalition of red-green localists - eg, comrade Pete McLaren - and those in the Socialist Party in England and Wales who passionately want to stay in the Socialist Alliance but have yet to summon up the political courage to split from the Peter Taaffe leadership; a leadership which palpably does not ?genuinely want to work together? with us and is indeed doing everything in its power to provoke a schism and thus an excuse to retreat back in to its sectarian shell.
SPEW?s executive has been locked in protracted attempts to come up with a set of structural proposals that serve the interests of both sides of its internal divide. Clive Heemskirk has turned to the arcane history and pre-history of the Labour Party. Perhaps here there might be the magical spell that can bridge the unbridgable gulf separating SPEW?s two wings. So far nothing has come forth. That alone proves that profound fault lines exist.
Expelling SPEW from the Socialist Alliance forthwith would be inadvisable. However, it would be both unprincipled and tactically mistaken to put a hold on the structural reorganisation that is vital if the Socialist Alliance is to consolidate and move forward.
There is though no need whatsoever for the Socialist Alliance to try and put off a split between Peter Taaffe on the one hand and Dave Nellist on the other. The sectarian wing of SPEW is free to leave the Socialist Alliance if it so wishes. The comrades must be told in no uncertain terms that with democratic rights comes the obligation to abide by democratic decisions.
The hand of friendship must, of course, be held out to our chair, comrade Nellist, and his comrades. Maintain your position within the Socialist Alliance, a brilliantly successful venture which you have done so much to sustain and promote. Comrade Nellist has been a worthy leader. But let us never forget that no individual is indispensable.
2. John Nicholson?s thoughts
Our joint national convenor, John Nicholson, is adamantly opposed to ?those who want to slow the whole thing down?. He believes that any change in structure ought to be ?accompanied by cultural change too?. Consensus rather than winning votes is what he seeks.
Despite such fine sentiments the comrade has outlined a very detailed set of restrictive and, in the last analysis, blatantly undemocratic rules. More than that, he wants to saddle the Socialist Alliance with six officers who would be elected and accountable only to an annual conference.
Below this body of red cardinals there would be a ?central organising body? akin to our present executive and again elected by the annual conference. The comrade would restrict the rights of the conference by preventing it from electing ?more than 50%? to any body ?from the political organisations?. No single organisation would be allowed more than a third of any body.
This is a narrow-minded, regressive and rigid formulation. A typical attempt to solve political problems using bureaucratic methods. Moreover by directly electing two centres of power from the same membership conference the danger of disputes erupting between, on the one hand, the officers collectively or even one self-willed individual and, on the other, the wider executive committee is constitutionally set in place. What happens, for example, if our treasurer or election agent ?do their own thing?, or do nothing at all? Only an annual conference is deemed competent to remove them.
That explains why the CPGB, in its submission, insists that all officers should be elected by the committee on which they serve. Provision must also be made for instant recall. The executive ought to elect and replace comrades as it sees fit. That is the system adopted in the London Socialist Alliance. And it works very well. For example, our former chair, Nick Long, dispatched a nasty little letter to The Observer attacking the AWL. He thereby instantly lost the support of the majority ... and resigned. Had he not done so, he would have been voted out without fuss, bother or humiliation.
As the biggest supporting organisation the SWP might well decide to limit the number of officers and executive places it seeks for its members. But majorities must have the right to be a majority. Bureaucratic impositions to bar that possibility are akin to a medicine that is worse than the disease itself. For example, what if the International Socialist Group decides to join the SWP? What measures are enacted after a single recruit from amongst the independents takes the SWP beyond comrade Nicholson?s cut-off point? Should the comrade dishonestly keep quiet about their new affiliation? Should there be a special investigation bureau followed by a special membership conference? Voluntary limitation is one thing. Enshrining 30% and 50% limits in the rules robs the present and the future of its democratic rights and the ability to sensibly reason.
Having clashed with comrade Nellist on more than one occasion, the comrade wants to avoid what he calls the ?cult of leadership?. There should, he says, be two co-chairs. His model is the Green Party.
Ours is the Bolshevik Party and Lenin. We could also cite August Babel, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Tommy Sheridan has too in our view played a positive role in the Scottish Socialist Party as its acknowledged leader - we leave aside ideological criticisms of his left reformism, nationalism, etc.
Communists treasure and well know the value of tried and tested leaders. As long as there is the robust climate of questioning, regular elections, recallability and the right to form temporary or permanent factions then there should be no fear of ?leadership cults?. Certainly what the Socialist Alliance suffers from is lack of leadership, not the cult of leadership. We therefore seek to create the conditions for more and better leadership.
Comrade Nicholson is of the opinion that the executive committee should be elected on a rigid one-third, one-third, one-third formula. Six elected officers, six from the principal supporting organisations and six so-called independents.
In addition they would be joined on a wider committee by two representatives from each of the nine European election regions - in the process grossly under-representing London. And again he would undemocratically limit the supporting organisations to only one of those regional representatives and any one organisation to no more than a third of the total. That means London could not elect its secretary, Greg Tucker (ISG), and its chair, Marcus Larsen (CPGB). It also means that some, but who knows which, elected representatives might be ineligible because they were members of the SWP.
The comrade takes a similar bureaucratic approach to achieving equality between men and women and ensuring the presence of black-British, Asian-British, etc, comrades. He suggests quotas, male-female alternation, deputies and ensuring that the organisations stop sending representatives who are white, male and from London. Though the motivation is undoubtedly sincere, the whole thing is a top-down nightmare.
3. Martin Thomas, writing as a member, but not on behalf, of the AWL
Comrade Thomas sketches out what he calls a ?more formalised structure?. He also proposes ways of electing committees.
We should aim, he says, to develop the Socialist Alliance as a ?pluralist but cohesive
campaigning force?. The Socialist Alliance ?must be a model of civilised democracy? in contrast to the bureaucratism and control-freakery of New Labour. We need efficient decision-making on the alliance?s responses to political events; transparency and accountability in decision-making; maximum discussion before all important decisions; decision by consensus wherever possible; and autonomy for groups within the alliance. No problem here. Though we should surely aim for ideological convergence around the most advanced theory and programme: ie, that of Marxism.
Anyway, comrade Thomas continues: ?All important decisions should be taken through formal, written resolutions of appropriate conferences or committees.? There must be minutes and their prompt circulation, etc. Membership for comrade Thomas ?carries an obligation not to obstruct campaigns decided on by the alliance?.
For our part we fight for unity in democratically agreed actions and the concurrent right to criticise before and after. Comrade Thomas, in contrast, would ?recognise? the inalienable right of minorities to campaign against the Socialist Alliance during an action. That is a grossly irresponsible anarchist formulation that would rob the Socialist Alliance of effective centralism and perpetuate sect primitivism. The Socialist Alliance can shed the stage of federalism. The whole must be put before the part, not the other way round. Unity is strength, says the old adage. This, it should be emphasised, is not some dead-weight baggage. Centralism is a living necessity because our enemy is centralised.
Comrade Thomas argues for the annual election of two leading committees: a national council and an executive. The former being larger and formally more powerful than the latter. But why two committees and the separation of powers?
Leftwing socialists and communists have in general opposed bicameral constitutions as much as they have the election of monarchical presidents. The bifurcation of power is a recipe for constant struggle. Furthermore the triumph of the weaker executive over the stronger national council is almost inevitable. An appeals or control commission would be an excellent idea, but dual power could see the Socialist Alliance with an unnecessary division of authority paralysing it in the midst of a big political challenge: general election, outbreak of war, etc.
Much better one clear line of command, beginning with the membership conference, with power running down from there to an executive and then to the regions and the individual workplace and geographical branches.
Thankfully comrade Thomas agrees with the CPGB when it insists that officers should be subordinate to the committee upon which they serve. Eg, national officers, editorial board, etc, should be elected by the executive committee ... and therefore instantly recallable by that committee.
The drawbacks that come with comrade Thomas?s unwillingness to break with an anarcho-bureaucratic approach to organisational matters can be readily appreciated when it comes to his method of electing committees. In the attempt to ?give some fairly reliable guarantees? to both unaffiliated individuals and politically defined minorities the comrade invents a Byzantine system of elections.
His national council would be elected in two parts. Two-thirds by a first-past-the-post ballot at conference. The remaining by proportional representation of ?those affiliated groups and caucuses present at the conference which choose to use this facility?. Each member will therefore have a ?choice of voting in either of two ways?. They can ?simply? take part in the first-past-the-post ballot, with a vote of full value, and not participate in the proportional-representation election. Alternatively they can record a vote for a group or caucus in the proportional-representation section, and then have a ballot paper of only two-thirds full value in the first-past-the-post ballot.
Another nightmare, and made all the more horrific by the comrade?s dogged determination to apply the same voting procedure to the executive ... but with yet more excruciating twists: only members already elected by the first-past-the-post method to his national council would be eligible to stand for the first-past-the-post section of the executive. In the minority-guarantee section the allocation will be of one place to each affiliated group and caucus ?choosing to use its rights in this section?. The first place will be allocated to the affiliated group or caucus with the largest number of members supporting it in the vote for the executive, the second to the one with the second largest number, and so on. If there are fewer affiliated groups or caucuses seeking representation than there are places, then a second place should be given to the largest affiliated group or caucus, and so on. Clear?
Comrade Thomas is, like comrade Nicholson, set upon a bureaucratic solution to gender balance, etc. He would stipulate that in the first-past-the-post section the top 20 women and top 20 men would be elected, rather than the top 40 candidates; and that affiliated groups and caucuses choosing proportional representation must nominate women for each alternate representative at least (second, fourth, sixth, etc). He is even tempted to add similar arrangements for ensuring ethnic-minority, regional, etc, representation. Thank goodness he draws back from that particular path to a bureaucratic hell. It would, he sadly admits, ?make the procedure much more complicated, and thus probably confuse members and maybe produce perverse results?. You don?t say.
But there are many other ways to achieve his brave new committees. He suggests provision for ?caucuses? defined other than by political ?line?. Eg, a black caucus. And he could go on ... and on and on. His vision is entirely abstract, entirely bureaucratic.
Balanced committees at all levels must be striven for. But that can best be achieved simply by general consensus and, at a conference level, by a democratically agreed elections preparations committee. Such a committee would take submissions, be under constant scrutiny and regularly report its deliberations before delivering a final recommended list. To be voted upon by individual name, not en bloc.
If black-British or Asian-British comrades wish to form distinct factions, so be it. At the moment that would in all likelihood produce more SWPers on comrade Thomas?s distopian committees. However, sectionalism in our ranks should not be encouraged. There should instead be a conscious attempt to produce a fighting leadership which finds its strength by drawing on all talents and all strands using the most straightforward manner of direct election.
4. Dave Church?s reflections
The comrade rhetorically asks whether we should ?take our time? and continue with our present arrangements, with the ?aim of building up trust and confidence in each other and continuing slowly to grow by attracting individuals and other organisations to join us?. Presumably he has Coventry and Warwickshire in mind - see above. Or do we push ahead in order ?swiftly to form a party (in reality if not in name)?? He supports the latter scenario, not least because of the expectation that disaffection with ?the direction being taken by New Labour will soon mean that many socialists will be searching for a new party?.
The comrade also detects that individual unaligned members are ?becoming wary? that our present arrangement could leave them in the position of being ?used? by the principal supporting organisations.
What sort of party? The Socialist Alliance should become a party based upon a
?federal/confederate structure?. This would ?not require? the dissolution of the existing supporting organisations which become ?affiliated/confederated? national organisations. Comrade Church?s ?federal/confederate? structure also consists of regional/local Socialist Alliance organisations. Individuals members who are resident in an area not covered by a ?local? SA are catered for too.
The comrade thinks it necessary to ?become a party? so as to demonstrate, particularly to potential members who are not members of parties, that whilst the SA includes other ?parties? it is more than just a body which coordinates the activities of its parts. It is important to demonstrate this to the wider public - ?including our adversaries?. Unless the Socialist Alliance becomes its ?own thing?, non-aligned members or potential members will simply feel that they are being exploited.
Though comrade Church employs a ?federal/confederal? nomenclature, the fact of the matter is that, apart from the CPGB?s, here is the most democratic and thus the most centralist set of proposals on offer. Good. The comrade also calls for a permanent office, full-time staff and ?sooner or later? some kind of journal/newspaper. So there must be a serious approach to finances and structure, in what would be a ?party even if not called a party?.
Although comrade Church falls for the commonsensical assumption that parties are built bottom-up, he does prove that he is amongst the front ranks of the Socialist Alliance?s personalities by his insistence upon distinguishing between ?acceptance? and ?agreement? with policy decisions. Loyalty, he says, should be judged solely on the basis of ?acceptance of united action?, not ideological agreement. This might be an anathema for the sects. But it shows a thorough grasp of the partyist ethos.
5. Communist Party of Great Britain
The CPGB proposes a clear and final break with all notions of federalism. The Socialist Alliance should be put on a proper democratic footing, with full and equal membership rights for all. No grouping or ?party? needs to be given special treatment in the constitution. Automatic representation at the top can be left behind and replaced by elections which should be guided - no more - by a preparations committee which seeks to ensure political, geographic, gender, etc balance, determined in the last analysis not by some preconceived mathematical equation, but by the needs of the struggle itself.
For example a situation where Liverpool found itself once again in the vanguard of the class struggle would require leading comrades from that city to sit on our executive committee. The same goes for other areas and campaigning issues. The advantage of an election preparations committee is that all this can be calmly discussed and democratically enacted.
The time has come for the alliance to radically upgrade its structure. We need to create the climate whereby the current left organisations become mere schools of thought or trends within a centralised party which unites the best activists of our class on the basis of the highest theory and an independent working class programme. Members need only accept democratic decisions: they need not agree. But there must be unity around agreed actions. Not to argue for that is to desert the field of class struggle and settle for a debating society. The Socialist Alliance party must be a combat organisation.
As well as centralised unity, we need democracy. Leave behind the mind control of the sects. Everyone must have the right to read what they want and to publish and circulate what they want. That includes the right to form temporary or permanent factions which can, if they so desire, have an open, public existence. They can call themselves what they will. But for internal purposes the term ?platform? serves admirably. Officially recognised platforms should automatically have the right to a voice on the highest committees of the Socialist Alliance, but nothing more. To form a recognised platform we have suggested a low sign-up point of only 20 SA members.
The CPGB favours the Socialist Alliance adopting a single national membership which welcomes all who accept the policies of the Socialist Alliance as the basis for united activity. Subscriptions should be paid nationally for the moment and distributed downwards. Membership gives you duties, but also full rights.
The principle of recallability of all elected positions must be enshrined. No aristocratic officers. No princes on high. Officers should be the elected servants of the committees on which they serve. Any notion or suggestion of retaining the presidential system must be rejected. Election of officers by their peers, who can hold them to account, is in actual fact far more democratic than election by an annual conference, which does not, and cannot, know how they work on a day-to-day basis. Sub-committees can be formed and dissolved as the need arises, including an editorial board of a common Socialist Alliance political paper.
The annual conference must decide overall policy and elect the executive committee. For the moment ?one member, one vote? will suffice. In the future, a delegate structure of some kind must be adopted.
Regional bodies should be autonomous within their sphere of activity. They must carry out agreed actions, but are free to develop their own policies and campaigns. Regional committees should be elected in the same manner as the executive committee, with officers elected by their peers and recallable.
The executive committee should be empowered to call consultative meetings between annual conferences. A special conference can also be called by one quarter of local and regional SAs or 10% of the membership. That requires the availability of names and addresses and a democratic political paper and bulletins.