Which way for the Socialist Alliance?
The CPGB?s Communist University hosted a roundtable discussion between three leading figures in the Socialist Alliance - Rob Hoveman (Socialist Workers Party), John Bridge (CPGB) and Dave Church (Walsall Democratic Labour Party). These are edited extracts from their initial comments and are followed by responses to the subsequent discussion
It is undeniable that we have made spectacular progress. The fact that the comrades in the SWP decided to join the SA certainly transformed our prospects. Their weight provided a lot of the existing organisations with the courage that individually, and even collectively, they lacked. For example, when the SWP decided not to contest the European elections in 1999, the Socialist Alliance collapsed as any sort of organisation. With the SWP fully committed, look what we were able to achieve in the Greater London Authority elections, and, more to the point, what we did in the general election.
No doubt there have been some hard struggles within the SWP leadership over this Socialist Alliance turn. It is certainly true that there has been a struggle for the activists in the SWP. Some have dragged their heels.
Not so long ago, when the SA Liaison Committee was examining how many candidates we ought to stand, those on the ultra-conservative side thought six would be all we could manage. The middling majority thought about 20-plus candidates, and on the ?loony fringe? were the CPGB representatives, who advocated 50-plus candidates in Britain as a whole.
What happened was not so much a change of mind above. By unleashing rank and file initiative and with our unity acting as a gravitational point of attraction for far wider forces, we found ourselves in a position of standing 92 candidates in England alone - a tremendous success. The CPGB stood 100 candidates across the whole of Britain in the 1950 general election. Our Socialist Alliance has managed to raise ourselves to a similar level without being a fully-fledged party, and without any Moscow, or Libyan, or Serbian or anyone else?s gold. We owe everything to the dynamism and enthusiasm that comes with unity.
It has to be stressed that the Socialist Alliance has not just brought together the small revolutionary groups. We are becoming a viable alternative for those on the left of the Labour Party, especially those who are breaking from Labourism.
There has been some discussion about carts and horses - what comes first: the programme or the organisation? Looking back at where we have come from, we find that the cart is sometimes put in front of the horse and sometimes vice versa. There has in other words been a reciprocal relationship between programme and organisation in the development of the Socialist Alliance.
Some of the original programmatic formulations that the Socialist Alliance produced quite frankly lacked any class content. They smacked of sentimental socialism; they were often more green than red. Our original federal organisation reflected such programmatic backwardness. On the other hand, after the six principal political organisations committed themselves to unitedly fight the June 7 general election, we produced a manifesto that, for all the criticisms we have of it, is in many ways an exemplary document: eg, the euro and Europe, crime and rehabilitation, women?s rights, abolition of the monarchy and the second chamber, etc.
Fittingly therefore, our next conference - on December 1 - will deal with organisational matters. We need an organisation that can effectively fight for our manifesto (programme). No-one on the leadership of the Socialist Alliance can seriously suggest that our organisation represents what we need. At the moment we still resemble a federal non-aggression pact or a loose united front. At branch level too localism often rules. Not surprisingly nobody is really sure who is a member of what. We need a straightforward membership system. We need one-member-one-vote democracy. We need an effective leadership.
There are those comrades who say we should have only a minimum of leadership - in fact some do not want any national leadership at all. One needs to understand how such anarchistic views came about. The history of the ?official? world communist movement, in the 20th century, including the CPGB, tell us in no small measure. So in different ways does the history of Labourism and the equally sorry history of the sects. Members were used as mere things. Few of us have not experienced such essentially reactionary regimes.
However, we need to go beyond the notion that socialist organisation must primarily protect or enshrine the rights of its members. We stand for members? rights and full and open democracy. But let?s get real. We socialists recognise the necessity for organisation because we face a common enemy. That enemy is not the SWP central committee, nor the Provisional Central Committee, nor the executive committee of the Socialist Alliance. Our main enemy is the British state, and the system of capital which stands behind it. That is why socialists, communists and trade unionists, and the working class movement, have always fought to achieve the fighting strength which comes with unity. The fighting strength which comes when our efforts are centralised. The fighting strength which comes by saying, let us strike together - even those comrades who have got disagreements. That way, we can act not as five separate fingers, but as a fist.
The Socialist Alliance needs not only democracy - which is absolutely essential and non-negotiable - we also need effectiveness. Here is the rub. Some comrades talk about emulating the Green Party. Famously the Greens have no single leader. We do not want a cult of leadership around Dave Nellist or any other comrade in the Socialist Alliance. But we do want effective leadership. Far from having suffered from too much leadership, in my view what the Socialist Alliance has suffered from so far has been not enough leadership. This failing was very damaging during the general election, and overcoming it will become more and more pressing, the more struggles we enter into.
In short the Socialist Alliance must be built into an effective weapon: a weapon that the working class can wield in order to fell the bourgeois state and the system of capital, and elevate itself to the position of being the ruling class. For me the scientific name of this weapon is a Communist Party. I do not think that on December 1, or for that matter within the next year, comrades will formally vote to form themselves into a Communist Party. But I do believe that we are set on a course towards ever closer unity and ever more effectiveness.
There is an awful lot I agree with in John?s presentation. However, I want to start with the election itself, because it seems to me that it confirmed an analysis that there is a massive disillusionment within the British working class towards establishment politics in general. Within that there is a clear trend towards the left within some sections of the working class.
The Tories are in utter disarray, having made no inroads whatsoever into the Labour vote, and are faced with the unenviable choice between Kenneth Clarke and something called ?IDS?. They are looking more unelectable than ever. The Liberal Democrats, posing to the left in the election, also made few inroads into the working class vote, though that may be seen as a contentious issue. Labour got a landslide in parliament, but only after getting one in four of the votes in the country, reflecting a massive, unprecedented abstention rate, the lowest vote historically since there has been some kind of extended franchise.
Votes are not everything, but I think the socialist vote in this election was also very significant. If you add up all of the votes for socialist candidates, it comes to somewhere around 195,000: that is, if you include the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and a number of other candidates who stood clearly as socialists. If you add into that the Greens as a left-of-Labour vote - I know that is controversial, but by and large I regard the Green vote as to the left of Labour - then you have 365,000 votes. That really is unprecedented. It is, after all, twice as high as the record held by the Communist Party in 1950.
Obviously, if we were in this game to be winning elections, we would be very demoralised at the moment, because we did not get close to winning a single seat. But votes are an important indicator of what there is to win in terms of socialist politics. There were a number of reasons for people to feel disappointed about the election outcome. Firstly, we had a very effective campaign, with a terribly good response on the streets - people coming up and saying, ?We?re so pleased you?re there; we?re going to vote for you? - and I think we got a little bit carried away as to what that really meant in terms of people going down to the polling booth. So we thought there would be a bigger vote. I certainly hoped that there would be more votes over 1,000 as a benchmark.
Another reason for the disappointment was that, despite having a very effective campaign even with very limited resources - a high profile, with lots of leaflets and canvassing done in some areas (another controversial issue, I know) - we did not put a difference between ourselves and the SLP in terms of the vote. They had no campaign to speak of and yet in total votes, although they stood a few more candidates, they got roughly the same as the Socialist Alliance. The Greens, also with virtually no campaign, got many more votes than the Socialist Alliance. Of course, the big shock of the night was that, despite the fact that we have knocked the BNP back over the years and kept them in the gutter, in a number of areas they got very significant votes indeed, with record results in Oldham and Burnley.
Nonetheless, if you look at the election historically, we got a large number of votes as socialist candidates and there is a large pool of people who are there to be won for socialist politics in the future.
Much more significant was something that John pointed to - the fact that we were able to get 92 candidates up in England and another six in Wales. Just a few months before we had thought the figure would be in the low 20s, or 50 at the outside. That is what we thought we would be capable of in terms of the organisation we had at the time. Even with those campaigns that came into existence only three or four weeks before the election - St Helens South is the conspicuous example - we pulled on board significant numbers of people from outside the ranks of the revolutionary organisations, people disillusioned with Labour: some of them still members of the Labour Party; some of them breaking from it during the election itself.
In the course of the campaign we effectively created a national organisation which has a serious profile. I would never have guessed that Tony Blair would utter the words ?Socialist Alliance?, because mentioning it could give it credibility. Yet in a very early interview in The Observer the words passed his lips, and they passed them again in a speech he made in Scotland. We were having an impact on core Labour voters and core Labour activists far beyond the vote we actually got.
That is very significant. We have become a national organisation. Dave Nellist quotes a figure on the basis of estimates he has produced - we are still in a state of some chaos - that we have about 3,000 members, 1,300 of them national members. I would actually put the figure at somewhat larger than 3,000, and there is certainly a potential to go well above that in the next while. So we have a serious national organisation and we want to go much further. At the end of the day we want to have an organisation in every single constituency across England and Wales. We have a long way to go, but we are rightly ambitious, in view of how far we have come.
So what do we need to do in order to consolidate the gains we have made and to take this further on to a new qualitative plane? The first thing we must not do is, unlike after the GLA elections, take our eye off the ball. The organisation failed to consolidate and we had to reinvent it again in October-November of last year. That was unfortunate. For us in the SWP and, I think, beyond, this is something we want to avoid at all costs. It will be much easier to avoid this time.
It means establishing Socialist Alliances on the ground; for them to have, I would argue, monthly meetings - I do not think we can expect to have activity that sustains weekly meetings, otherwise we could shrink back to a core of activists, largely from revolutionary socialist organisations. Monthly meetings with steering groups that are focused on activity and ensuring that the profile of the Socialist Alliance is sustained locally and that it continues to grow.
On the basis of the constituencies where we stood, we are not going to cover much of the country, so we are talking about ?constituencies plus?. This is not much of a guideline, but what I say to my comrades is that you want the smallest organisation possible compatible with being an effective Socialist Alliance locally - being able to build campaigns, being able to establish a profile, being able to plan for future elections. I guess that minimum level is roughly the size of a constituency, but other shapes of organisation will become appropriate depending on where you are.
The thing that we missed this time round was a Socialist Alliance that had established itself as a campaigning organisation, alongside and supporting the working class in their struggle at every stage of development. We were the new kids on the block, and, not surprisingly in those circumstances, workers remained suspicious: ?Aren?t you just the same as the others? We don?t know who you are. You haven?t established yourselves.?
There is a contrast, of course, both with the Greens and the SLP. The Green Party has been around for 20 years - not very visibly in terms of campaigning, it has to be said, but visible in terms of elections - and sometimes gets good results. We were also visible relative to the SLP, which has had no campaigning profile whatsoever since 1997, but does have the name of Arthur Scargill, someone that many people still think of as a key campaigner, a key fighter against Thatcherism and for his class. So we have a way to go in terms of establishing our bona fides and our credibility amongst the working class. That has to be done by consistent campaigning - against council house privatisation, privatisation more generally and so forth.
This is one of the reasons why I personally think it very important that we do our utmost to build the demonstration against the government?s privatisation plans at the Labour Party conference on September 30 as strongly as possible. There are many other issues we want to see the Socialist Alliance campaigning on as well. What forms should those campaigns take? By and large I do not think we should be calling them as the Socialist Alliance. I think it is a matter of the Socialist Alliance joining with others in united front organisations around those campaigns, but making sure we are there every inch of the way.
We need to be thinking seriously about the council elections next May, because - as our comrades in the Socialist Party say over and over again, and I think there is truth in it - you have to have concerted work in a certain number of areas if you are going to establish any kind of credibility locally and therefore make a splash in those elections.
Again, it is not in the first instance about winning. At this stage we are not likely to win any seats. But we want to come out of the council elections feeling more confident, and we want the working class itself to feel more confident that they can do something to fight back against this New Labour government.
There is also the area of activity in relation to the trade unions, and here again the Socialist Alliance has had an impact way beyond the election. There have been significant votes - including at least one vote in favour of democratising trade union funds - which have had something to do with the Socialist Alliance and the profile we have assumed. We have some of the key trade union activists and trade union militants in our ranks, including one general secretary, Mark Serwotka.
Again, our trade union work should not be about trying to cut across other forms of left unity within the trade unions, not about having a separate Socialist Alliance grouping, but it is important that the Socialist Alliance has a profile within those groupings.
Lastly, the structure of the future Socialist Alliance. Here I think I am going to find myself in agreement with both John and Dave Church, if I read my Weekly Worker correctly. What do we want to see? We want to see a more effective and more coherent national organisation. We have been struggling, in putting together the national organisation, with a structure that is simply inappropriate for the kind of organisation that we now have and that we need to be in order to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead of us. In being effective and coherent nationally, we need the organisation to be more democratic, more inclusive and more accountable than it currently is. That does mean, I think, a sizeable change in the culture of the Socialist Alliance.
It certainly means eradicating the problems we have with different levels of membership. We want one membership - a membership that gives people rights throughout the organisation. Here I find myself largely in agreement with Mike Marqusee?s proposals on membership rights. We want to have a national executive that can work coherently and effectively together, that can give leadership but which is at the same time constantly accountable to the membership itself - through delegate bodies and beyond that to the membership meetings.
We want an inclusive organisation. There has been speculation about whether we should become a party. How should one put it? - if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, it is a duck. We are moving towards something that many people would regard as a party. In the election, people would phone up and say, ?Now, about your Socialist Alliance party.? That was common.
Whether you want to call it that or not, the one thing we do not want to see is an organisation develop which either pushes out those who are not convinced of the revolutionary road to socialism, or alternatively pushes out the revolutionaries in favour of the parliamentary road to socialism. We have an organisation at the moment - and I am very pleased that we have developed this way - containing both of those working together in common cause around a whole number of issues and around elections - bringing people together in a context where there can be continual debate and discussion as to who is right and wrong, but where nobody is pushing anybody else out of the big tent.
That is the kind of organisation that I want to see, whether you call it a party or not. So long as it allows people who call themselves socialists, but who sometimes have quite different end views as to what that amounts to, to work side by side, in the same organisation, then that is OK by me.
I do not want to see an organisation that has quotas, and I am not particularly keen to see an organisation that includes the principle of proportional representation in elections. I believe that quotas are intrinsically undemocratic, because they remove or diminish the right of individual members to the full weight of their vote. Proportional representation, along with quotas, institutionalises division according to groupings, and does not make a great deal of sense in terms of an organisation that wishes to enfranchise both those who are in no other socialist organisation, and those who are in socialist organisations alongside one another inside the Socialist Alliance.
Of course there is the tricky issue of candidate selection. I am laying out a stall here in terms of what I would like to see. What we end up with is going to depend on a process of discussion and debate over the next few months and then a vote at the conference. I would like to see a situation in which candidates who are selected to stand for the Socialist Alliance are selected by the individual members in the appropriate organisational unit of the Socialist Alliance. There are others who do not agree with that, and who fear that development.
One last point. What is our purpose in coming into existence? I think our purpose has been to try to reorganise, and to reinstall a sense of confidence in those who wish to see radical change in this country, those who regard themselves as socialists - some of whom have been in the Labour Party, many of whom have been disillusioned with the idea that there is any avenue to change outside the Labour Party, through independent socialist organisation. To give them the feeling that we can actually organise effectively, that we can begin to make a difference to British politics.
We are also about trying to crack apart the embrace and the domination of Labourism and of the Labour Party over political life in this country. I think it is very significant that we have got on board people like Liz Davies, who until recently was on the NEC of the Labour Party. It shows the cracks beginning to appear in the Labour project and we are beginning to see those cracks appearing in the trade union movement in terms of the democratisation of the use of the union political funds. We need to crack apart Labourism in order to expand socialist organisation and socialist ideas, ideas which ultimately focus on the question of raising the confidence of the working class itself.
I am from the revolutionary tradition. I believe that we have to have a revolution. I believe that we have to smash the state in Britain. The only force within society capable of smashing that state is the working class itself, which must emancipate itself through revolution. Within the Socialist Alliance, I would like to see a revolutionary organisation increase in size and influence, and of course in particular I would like to see my organisation increase in size and influence, although I would strongly expect all organisations to move with the rising tide.
But, as I say, at the end of the day we can come together: those who believe in that revolution and those who reject it. What we are about is trying to establish an organisation that can give people more confidence that we can ultimately make serious changes, that we can begin to turn the tide on Blair and his Tory agenda.
John says that the existing Socialist Alliance is a temporary arrangement and that what we want is a Communist Party. I would say that what we want is a Socialist Alliance and not much more than that. I am the one who wants a Socialist Alliance party. I want a party that will be able to move in the direction that we all agree with, whether we are coming from the revolutionary standpoint or the reformist one.
I was last here in Uxbridge in 1974, when I had been on the Walsall council for a couple of years. We came here to discuss housing but we then got on with the politics and started to think about our own Walsall philosophy. We were all members of the Labour Party, but had given up on the Labour mainstream in that sense. So we started to talk about forming an organisation within the Labour Party that could be considered socialist.
We decided that our philosophy should be based on the idea of building up from the bottom. Obviously any organisation needs a leadership and a structure, but what we do not want is leaders who are going to come down with the gospel. I had that within the Labour Party for over 30 years and learned the hard way that I was just a part of someone else?s party, just part of an election machine for somebody else. Never again.
Although we want to see a party, we will still remain the Walsall ?whatever?. We started off as part of the Walsall Tribune group - something to hide behind. Then we had already abandoned the idea of a top-down approach. We concluded that it was essential to gain the confidence of the working class at its own level: ie, the notion of an organisation that builds from the bottom up.
Revolutionary organisations recognise the potential of being involved with people who are in struggle, people who are searching for answers. That is the time when they want to educate themselves, as opposed to someone educating them. For most people in our country the struggle is every day - little struggles, every single day. In these little battles, over such questions as housing, it was possible to introduce people to the wider implications - not just national, but international - of why, for example, in little Walsall, they could not get a house.
I believe that, if we are not careful, we will lose something if in our desire for leadership we lose the local factor and become the elite. Thinking of the Labour Party, I feel that the people on the ground never really regarded it as their party, as the working class party. It was the party you always voted for, because it was the party that was going to give you something, as opposed to the other side, but it was never yours.
I do not want to build up another party that is someone else?s - not ours, not the people?s. I want to build up a party that remains in effect an alliance. It is time we actually called it a party, but the question is what kind of party we want. Not an overcentralised party, but a decentralised party, a party where power rests with the local Socialist Alliances. Obviously we need a central policy, but at the same time I do not think we should jump on an alliance in some particular locality that has a slightly different policy.
The reality is that the electorate is suspicious of and distrusts ?unity? because it is just not natural to have a position where we all agree. It is lying to each other to suggest otherwise. Why shouldn?t we say to people, ?We?ve got differences?? We should welcome the continuing debate rather than attempt to stifle it. I believe it will be better if we carry on with an alliance, where the SWP, for example, will remain not just a faction, but a party, and that applies to the CPGB as well. But it is important that the Socialist Alliance should become a party, with a national office and newspaper of its own, a professional organisation in that sense.
What I am arguing for is a new type of party. Every time you argue for something new, it is as if you have got to have every ?i? dotted and every ?t? crossed - somehow in order to move forward you have to have every answer before you take the first step and as a result we never take the first step and stay pretty much where we are. We need to recognise that such a position is disastrous for socialists. In my view, we are on the way out unless we do something about it.
You have to admit that the capitalist system is well managed - by the capitalists, for the capitalists. We talk about socialism and people say, ?We don?t want anything to do with you.? That is the truth of the matter.
We need as many of us as possible who call ourselves socialists to be in the same organisation - a framework that would enable every single person who wants to fight for socialism to know exactly where they need to go first: namely, an organisation of which all the other socialists are a part. I think that the Socialist Alliance as a party - a decentralised party - can be that. I hate to say it, but perhaps we are going to be the last chance - not of ensuring that we get socialism overnight, but at least that we are moving in the right direction.
Responses to discussion
The truth of the matter is that the two ?roads? - decentralisation, as it were, from above, and building up from the base - would meet and you would not need a central organisation to tell the people down there what to do, because they have got enough common sense to do it themselves. It is an insult to people to suggest that you need some great centralised organisation. The power rests with local organisations. Those local organisations will inevitably make sure themselves that they fit into the jigsaw, because it is sensible for them to do sol
In terms of local versus national, let me make some things absolutely clear. It is the position of the SWP that we want local Socialist Alliances to take initiatives, to build roots locally. That means getting into the estates, talking to people, making them feel confident that we can somehow relate to the particular everyday problems that they face. National campaigns can be part of giving a steer to particular local alliances.
On the question of the size of units, we are faced with a genuine problem. Obviously I do not want to see Socialist Alliances which have four or five people turning up to them. It seems to me that around 20 would be the minimum figure and we have to organise on that kind of basis. There needs to be more consultation locally about how best we get these units together, because structure can influence success.
There are issues in terms of ensuring that the kind of thing we want nationally is reflected locally: ie, that local Socialist Alliances do not conduct themselves in a sectarian way, do not act in an undemocratic way and that they are inclusive rather than exclusive. That does mean that ultimately you have to give the national organisation - with various protections, of course - some powers to determine whether local Socialist Alliances are getting this right.
Nationally, we have to ensure that the alliance is properly representative. I do not believe that proportional representation is actually the best way to do that, because PR makes it more difficult for those who are unorganised - essentially, the independents.
On campaigns, I think there is a misunderstanding. For campaigns to be effective, they need to be an expression of the united front. For the Socialist Alliance to front up a campaign and say this is our campaign is to narrow campaigns down in most instances. That is not to say that the Socialist Alliance - with a more coherent and effective national leadership than it currently has - will not be able to initiate things nationally, or indeed that these things cannot be initiated locally by Socialist Alliances, but there is a danger of things being narrower.
I do not believe that there are Chinese Walls between Globalise Resistance - the anti-capitalist movement, if you like - the Anti-Nazi League and the Socialist Alliance. I want to see the Socialist Alliance - just as I want to see the SWP, as a revolutionary organisation - having a profile within each of these areas and working hard to make sure that those areas of campaigning activity are effective. I think it is a particular problem for us actually that we are more Labourist than we are anti-capitalist and this is an issue that we need to address, in terms of tapping into that particular area of radicalisation that we see going on around us.
As far as the SWP is concerned, the situation has changed to open up a space where we can be much more effective getting together in the Socialist Alliance on the electoral terrain to organise and reorganise socialists. I want to see a Socialist Alliance that is more independent than it is at the moment of the organisations that support it - particularly of the SWP, as it happens. We must be committed to a long-term project with a structure which supports that: more coherent and more democratic.
I think it would be precipitative for us to adopt the name ?party?. We have plenty of experience of organisations declaring themselves to be ?the party?, including the SWP. That is something we should just be a little cautious of. The same thing as regards the question of a paper.
As far as the SWP is concerned, we want debate within the Socialist Alliance, but we do not want the kinds of debates which are sterile. What we have to be cautious about is debate that does not relate to the people we need to get on board. I want local Socialist Alliances to become vehicles that those who have become disillusioned with revolutionary organisations can feel comfortable with; likewise those who have never been in revolutionary organisations. In the past we bent the stick against certain kinds of debates, because we thought they would mean just the revolutionary left talking to itself over the heads of the kinds of people we are trying to get involved. That is not the way we want to go.
We in the SWP do not want to dominate, but, within a general framework of a much bigger organisation than we have at the moment, we would like to exercise perhaps more influence than we do at present. We want an organisation which is much, much bigger and we expect to be able to build it much more quickly than we can the SWP.
As regards the question of revolutionary organisations, I have no time to go into such questions as democratic centralism. The fact is that revolutionary organisations are based on certain fundamental principles. For us, it is not so much state capitalism and the other issues that Cliff gave his name to in developing the theories of the SWP. It is the central question of the self-emancipation of the working class and the revolutionary road to socialism. On the basis of these principles, we do regard it as more effective to be organised in a democratic centralist way, with the required discipline. Are we in a situation where we are looking for revolutionary regroupment? The world is changing. We want to respond to those changes, and that is why we are in discussions with certain organisations, and no doubt those discussions will go on.
For us, the Socialist Alliance is about collecting socialists together in much larger numbers, in an effective organisation, to raise the confidence of those socialists, to increase our impact as socialists electorally and in other arenas, and to help with the fracture of Labourism. Within that, we would like to see a revolutionary organisation grow, because we believe that the revolutionary road is the only way that we will ultimately get socialism.
On the argument concerning the size of local alliances, personally I have no problem with small units. I do not think there is an SWP conspiracy being hatched. Take a look at capitalist management systems and how they organise to make profits. The best unit, according to management gurus, is not Rob?s 15 to 20 people. The most effective working unit for effective lines of communication is about five or six. The CPGB itself is actually organised in very small units - and not just because our organisation remains painfully weak.
We can argue about the Socialist Alliance, what level of commitment people give and the size of units. But the real question is our effectiveness and ability to democratically discuss across the whole Socialist Alliance. That is where a paper comes in. It might be more effective organisationally to break the SA down into units of five or six. But for them to be really politically effective members must be able to communicate and debate at all levels. That requires knowledge and information. It is not just a question of the leadership knowing what all the parts are doing. I do not think Rob or Dave have got a clue what all the parts are doing.
We need a culture of democracy, and that means a culture of debate. Of course the SWP, the majority, has the right to put up its hand in favour of what debates it thinks are useful. But democracy is not just the rule of the majority: it is also about a culture where minorities have the right to become majorities. In other words we do not have the view that once you constitute the majority, that is the end of the argument. Argument, in any socialist organisation, argument within a working class that seeks to liberate itself and the whole of humanity, has to be permanent and open-ended.
Life is constantly presenting us with new problems. Usually majorities are conservative. They are attached to the old. Almost inevitably answers first come from a single individual or a handful of people. If we want to effectively deal with new problems we have got to positively facilitate the ability of minorities to get their voices heard in the Socialist Alliance. Some will be cranks. Some will not be worth listening to. But besides the sterile dross there will be shafts of light that enable us to see collectively what was previously obscure or invisible.
Now centralism versus decentralism. My basic understanding is that socialism, as a social system, comes from below. It is not delivered from a socialist parliament. It is not delivered by a revolutionary party that comes to power in the name of the proletariat; like Fidel Castro or Mao?s People?s Liberation Army. It is an act of the working class itself.
But Marxism, as a theory, does not begin below: it is a world-embracing theory which draws on everything that is advanced in human knowledge.
In terms of politics, we do not, therefore start from the local, or even the national, level. We start with the sort of questions Rob referred to that are associated with Tony Cliff. I personally disagree with many of Cliff?s conclusions - state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, etc. But if you do not try and answer the global questions, any attempt to liberate the working class is doomed to failure. Here perhaps we need to have a discussion with Dave Church. I agree with many of the things that comrade Dave is saying. The main thing he wants is democracy. And that is fundamentally why we are united with him.
But theory and high politics matter. Those who simply say, for example, that the nature of the Soviet Union is now irrelevant - let us just unite - are philistines. We should unite organisationally, but not conclude some theoretical non-aggression pact. Today?s generation of communists and revolutionary socialists must - if we want to win - get to the core of what went wrong with the Soviet Union. No existing ?theory?, no ?party?, is sacrosanct. We have to be ruthless in our criticism.
Incidentally one of the mistakes that I think the Bolshevik Party made was banning the right of comrades to form factions. It is true that they said it was an emergency measure. I sincerely believe that was what Lenin intended. But the fact is that was a mistake. And I do not think the Socialist Alliance should make any such mistake in the future.
In other words, our alliance - yes - has to be centralised and effective, because our enemy is centralised and effective. But unlike them we must of necessity also be democratic. Take away democracy and you take away our ability as an organisation to think - and thus our ability to perform the tasks that history requires.