Democratic centralism and the SA euro vote

At the Socialist Alliance's October 12 special conference on the euro there was a two-to-one majority in support of an allegedly 'internationalist' campaign against British membership of the single currency in a future referendum. Since then some heated debates have broken out, in particular on the internet discussion lists connected with the Socialist Alliance. In essence, the dispute is about the parameters of what the current minority in the Socialist Alliance should permit themselves to do in the face of the majority 'no' vote. Some individual supporters of the majority position have been particularly vehement in demanding that the 'active boycott' minority, consisting of the CPGB, Workers Power and the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, along with a number of independents, refrain from waging or endorsing any public campaign against the majority position when the referendum actually takes place (which of course, may well be in several years time, long enough for numerous new developments and a whole new debate to take place). This is an important issue. And not just for reasons directly connected with the euro itself. A whole slew of political questions, closely related both to general organisational principles and the current stage of evolution of the Socialist Alliance project, are posed here. The way the Socialist Alliance handles this dispute will be important in establishing precedents for the way it handles disputes in the future. There are twin dangers here for the project - which can be summed up as bureaucratic centralism on the one hand, anarchism and disintegration of the alliance project on the other. Any heavy-handed attempt to enforce policy on all SA members and supporting organisations would simply serve to drive out the minority. Clearly that will not happen. As SA national secretary and Socialist Workers Party member Rob Hoveman told the CPGB's Communist University, "the constitution of the Socialist Alliance makes it clear that those who feel uncomfortable with the decision - whether it is in favour of a 'no' vote or an active boycott - will be under no obligation to participate in the subsequent campaign. Indeed there is a right under the constitution not to participate" (Weekly Worker October 10). But conversely there is also a danger that the more sectarian elements in the SA minority could take a course of action that involves the renunciation in practice of any responsibility for ensuring the overall unity and cohesion of the alliance project. The pronouncements of some supporters of the AWL only underline that the group's attitude to the SA is not fundamentally different to that of the SWP - that the alliance is not so much a project with a real worth in its own right, but more of an arena in which to recruit to its own sect as the expense of rivals. For instance, the AWL's Jim Denham stated on the SA's email discussion list with regard to the SA euro policy: "I intend to do everything in my power to denounce and oppose it in public" (October 17). If the Socialist Alliance was a democratic centralist party, which we of the CPGB have long argued it should become, it would have the right to demand that its supporters abide by official policy on this question for the duration of an action where this policy was to be put into practice. Of course, the only action with political meaning relevant to the SA's position on the euro would be the referendum campaign itself. Thus during the campaign, it would be obligatory, for example, for members of the SA party to distribute its official campaign material, whether they agreed with its contents or not. Members with a minority position would not of course be under discipline to lie about their political views - they would be able to make them clear when questioned about SA policy - but it would be a clear breach of discipline for any section of the SA to formally endorse or initiate a campaign or bloc involving other forces that aimed to wage a referendum campaign for a position other than that of the SA. That would be a de facto declaration of split. However, it is necessary to take issue with Stuart King of Workers Power when he writes: ""¦ a democratic centralist organisation "¦ binds its individual members "¦ to argue and campaign for only its adopted positions" (my emphasis, SA discussion list, October 22). The minority in a genuinely democratic centralist party would have every right to publish their own views, and to seek to become the majority by recruiting new forces into the party on those views. If such a thing became possible by the relation of forces within the party, this could even involve forcing a special conference in the middle of the referendum campaign to reverse party policy. This might seem to be an extreme example. However, without this right to overturn policy, even while an action is taking place, the rights of the party membership to be the ultimate deciding factor in policy would in practice be negated. While these kinds of considerations are appropriate for a democratic centralist party, the Socialist Alliance is not yet such a party. Therefore democratic centralism in the sense outlined above cannot be the guiding principle of how the SA organises itself. Indeed, agreement to function on the above basis presupposes a much greater level of cohesion and voluntary drawing together of the principal component parts of the project than currently exists. Such a norm would presuppose that the confessional divisions between the various leftist organisations that make up the alliance have already been transcended. It would mean a qualitatively different kind of political culture than that which exists in the SWP or its smaller bureaucratic centralist imitators in the SA. Since the SA is not a democratic centralist party, how should minorities on this kind of question conduct themselves? Because no agreement has been made to adopt such norms, no component part of the alliance can be held to them, at least without transforming the SA into another bureaucratic sect, where the leadership rewrites the rules to suit itself. The enforcement of such norms would certainly require a rewrite of the present SA constitution, which, as comrade Hoveman states, is pretty broad and permissive in terms of what is allowed. For instance, the constitution gives the following overview of the cooperation between the differing political currents that make up the alliance: "We have developed as an organisation which recognises the variety of views held by the many different perspectives within the Socialist Alliance; indeed we see this as a strength. We have agreed to unite and campaign around the policies we can all accept." The clear implication being that if "we" cannot "accept" a policy, "we" (ie, the SA membership) are not obliged to "unite and campaign" around them. The constitution then goes on address what happens if major disagreements arise that we cannot "accept" and "unite and campaign" around: "Membership of the alliance carries an obligation not to obstruct campaigns decided on by the alliance. We recognise, however, the right of minorities publicly to promote their views. In the event that an organised minority intends to take any action conflicting with a majority decision nationally or locally, that minority should inform the alliance at the relevant level of its intention to do so." So, in other words, members and supporting organisations are, in the ordinary run of things, obliged to accept the policies decided upon by the SA, to the extent of not 'obstructing' them. But if there are decisions taken that that an alliance component cannot go along with, and intends to campaign against publicly, they can in fact do so within the constitution, merely on the proviso that the alliance at the relevant level is notified in advance that such a course of action is intended. This constitutional provision means, quite explicitly, that even the minimal obligation "not to obstruct" Socialist Alliance policy decisions is not absolute, but only an exhortation as to what is the ideal manner that the SA should operate in the eyes of those who drafted it. So in constitutional terms, the kind of 'in your face' intention to publicly mount an active boycott campaign against the stated policy of the SA before and during a future referendum, of the kind that has already been announced by the AWL 'in advance' so to speak, is quite within the constitution of the Socialist Alliance. Nevertheless, the AWL has been criticised for its intentions on this by a number of comrades, including some independents who are not particularly factional partisans of the SWP and its sometimes on-and-off cynical attitude to the SA. It has to be said that while these comrades are wrong in terms of the constitution, they are more right that the AWL in terms of pushing the Socialist Alliance in a partyist direction. For instance, as one such comrade pointed out in debates on the SA discussion list, if elected representatives were to vote against democratically decided SA policy in parliament, or on a local council, that would be intolerable. It certainly would - it would represent the ascendancy of the parliamentarians/councillors over the rank and file of the workers' movement - which of course has been a key source of the corruption and degeneration of social democracy. More generally, this kind of ignoring the will of the alliance membership - including, it has to be said, those sections of the SWP membership that were mobilised and instructed to vote for the 'no' position - is a sectarian idiocy, the product of a perspective that is deeply pessimistic of the potential of the alliance project to lead to any positive transcendence of sect politics. In reality, this kind of sectarianism is a reflection of the fact that the AWL and, it would also seem, Workers Power (comrade King argued a similar 'do your own thing' line in the debate on the Socialist Alliance list) have still not theorised their involvement in the SA project, beyond the empirical observation that their old-fashioned automatic support for the Labour Party no longer seemed to be working and therefore something else had to be tried instead. Marx once said something to the effect that any step forward for a real movement is worth more than a dozen formally correct programmes. Given the failure of reformism that gave birth to Blairism and the neoliberal form of social democracy in the first place, the Socialist Alliance project, with its right of public criticism combined with the aspiration of most of its membership for unity of the fragmented revolutionary left, tends in its logic towards filling the political space to the left of New Labour with a new working class party organised along the lines of the watchword, 'Freedom of criticism, unity in action'. Its logic, properly understood, is that of a democratic centralist Communist Party. This logic, unfortunately, is either lost on, or is regarded with some discomfort by, a number of the principal supporting organisations - from the SWP, with its label of 'united front of a special type' (ie, an intended transmission belt into the SWP), to the AWL, which seems to simply see the SA as a means to sharpen up its attacks on the SWP, to Workers Power, which implies that the SA is a "tower of Babel" that cannot be allowed the luxury of a publication precisely because it does not fit into its mono-ideological model of what a 'revolutionary party' should look like (ie, like a larger WP). The AWL and co notwithstanding, it is better that the Socialist Alliance adopted a position, even if one we consider to be wrong, on the euro, than agreeing not to adopt a position, as was proposed in the Landau motion to the October 12 conference that the AWL and Workers Power voted for. A wrong position can be corrected through political struggle and debate - but the passage of the Landau motion, after the views of the majority had become clear, would have signalled that the alliance was not serious about the right of the majority to act as the majority. Majorities do have the right to speak in the name of the whole, providing that minorities are also allowed full freedom to struggle to become the majority. Comrade Landau's motion would have signalled paralysis of the project itself, which is why we rightly voted against it. In the view of this writer at least, the large (one third) SA minority that stood on internationalist principles at last week's conference should now be looking to organise themselves in a manner that is both explicitly within the framework of the SA constitution and in keeping with the real partyist logic of the SA project. That is, they should form a united, public, internationalist platform to continue the fight for the minority to become a majority. The formation of such a platform would mark a real development of the alliance: it would in some ways, even though on a single issue, be the first real fruit of the SA developing an internal life in its own right, no longer simply limited to the pre-existing divisions between the components that formed it. It could also play a catalytic role in resurrecting the project of an unofficial SA paper, which unfortunately the recent sectarian turn by the AWL has put very much on the back burner. Such a platform should for the first time give a real collective organisation and purpose to that layer of independent comrades who supported the active boycott motion at the conference. Indeed, such a body might well give birth to its own mirror image in terms of an opposing platform based on the existing policy. But, again, this would be all to the good. The formation of platforms that transcend the pre-existing hardened sect lines would represent something new in terms of the alliance project - a deepening of the kind of collaboration through political struggle in building a common project that will be essential if the alliance is to fully realise its potential and develop into the party the working class needs. Ian Donovan