Socialist Platform leaders: Headlong collapse into politics of the labour bureaucracy
Peter Manson reports on the undemocratic manoeuvres of the drafting group
The September 14 meeting of Left Unity’s Socialist Platform confirmed the headlong collapse that four of the original drafters - Chris Strafford, Soraya Lawrence, Nick Wrack and Will McMahon - of the Socialist Platform have undergone. The platform states that the SP is not for running capitalism, but for an alternative, socialist society, yet the organisers insist on stopping short of explaining what this ought to mean: a society in transition to a classless, stateless form of organisation (communism).
Presumably in the belief that the inclusion of this aim - without which no genuinely socialist platform can be complete - might be viewed as too ‘extreme’ by potential supporters, the group of four (Go4) decided that it was vital to reject outright the CPGB’s proposed amendments. Just a week before the meeting was due to be held, the Go4 proposed that the platform should not be up for amendment on September 14. So the CPGB amendments on human freedom - together with other changes on, for example, democracy, the extension of past gains and the European Union, plus one other amendment from Ian Donovan - ought to be subject only to an “indicative vote”.
The original email announcing the meeting carried an invitation to submit amendments to the platform, with a deadline of September 1. But on September 8 a further circular to platform signatories, signed by the Go4, was sent out. This stated that, while September 14 “will give us a good opportunity to … discuss and debate the platform statement”, the Go4 were “concerned that the significant progress we have made so far in obtaining the support of so many people is not fractured or undermined by taking any decisions about the content of the statement without the fullest involvement of all who have supported the statement so far”.
Although “We recognise that the statement is open to revision or amendment”, the Go4 now proposed that “it would be a mistake to make any changes based on the involvement only of those who can attend the meeting”. Therefore, the “central purpose of the meeting” would no longer be the content of the platform, but “to build support for the statement” as it has come down to us from a self-appointed drafting group. A crude, bureaucratic manoeuvre - in effect it amounted to hollowing out the normal democratic process and leaving us with a plebiscite.
This was immediately followed by the suggestion that “we reconvene a caucus prior to Left Unity founding conference” - indeed “A further meeting” was an item on the proposed agenda for September 14. The message appeared to be clear: this “further meeting” before the LU conference would somehow be more representative of the signatories and would indeed be able to agree to the final wording of the platform.
But the meeting itself saw yet another manoeuvre. At the close, Nick Wrack (the platform’s main author and de facto leader), stated bluntly that because of time, expense, etc, there would be no further meetings of the Socialist Platform before conference apart from two caucuses at Left Unity gatherings (before the September 28 LU policy conference and the November 30 founding conference). So the platform will go to conference unamended. What a surprise.
The meeting itself began with the bad-tempered and intolerant chair, Soraya Lawrence, announcing that the Go4’s agenda, together with the alternative proposed by the CPGB, would be put before the meeting. At first she refused to hear a point of order coming from the CPGB’s John Bridge, who stated that Susann Witt-Stahl, a leftwing journalist from Germany who wanted to attend the meeting, should be allowed in. She had been refused entry. When comrade Bridge was finally allowed to make his point, the chair ruled that no observers were allowed. After comrade Bridge persisted, she eventually agreed to put the question to the vote and - as is often the way with these things - the majority went along with ‘the leadership’ and it was decided by 22 votes to 20 to bar her (there was no discussion as to why her presence would be undesirable).
This did not augur well for the SP’s openness and commitment to basic democratic norms. A point of order was met with outright hostility and a friendly journalist treated as an unwelcome alien. It was evident that comrade Wrack and his Independent Socialist Network had decided to oppose everything coming from the CPGB. They caucused before the meeting - as is their right - and ironically it would seem that various comrades had been busy on the phone whipping up anti-group prejudice. The ISN is, of course, one of those anti-group groups that unites sects of one on the lowest-common-denominator basis.
It has to be said that the attendance was very good - 44 out of 106 signed-up supporters is pretty healthy for a meeting of this kind. But, of course, allowing these comrades to change the content of the platform was just not on. Indeed, as comrade Lawrence explained, the “idea of the meeting” was to “discuss how to build further support”.
In moving the Gof4’s proposed agenda, Chris Strafford was for a “more patient view”. It is “more democratic to have the debate over a longer period”. He promised there would be “opportunities” to do that “over the next few months”. The example he gave was that “the question of Europe can’t be decided in one afternoon in London”. No, such questions need careful consideration - in that sense he is right. But it is the duty of all to give such consideration beforehand and be prepared to take a position on them when they are put to the vote.
Proposing an alternative agenda, whereby the platform could be subject to change and endorsement, comrade Bridge said that, when the original drafters produced the Socialist Platform, the CPGB considered it a step forward. The usual approach of the left was not to begin with what they professed to believe in. Rather the “rotten method” was to write for “those out there”. In other words keep things acceptable to the right, to the trade union bureaucracy (and ultimately to become the prisoners of the bourgeois establishment). With the Go4’s proposal for nothing more than indicative votes it is clear that the “same rotten method” has been adopted. A case of one step forward and two steps back. The truth was, argued comrade Bridge, that the platform could not be amended because the proposals from the CPGB were viewed as too radical. The excuse about absent comrades is just that. An excuse. And the fact of the matter is that the Go4 cannot legitimately claim to speak on behalf of those who absent. Nor can the CPGB or anyone else, for that matter. Meetings that are legitimately called should be viewed as legitimate.
After he had finished comrade Lawrence asked comrades not to use unpleasant phrases like “rotten method” and opened the question of the agenda up to debate.
The ‘highlight’ was the intervention of comrade Wrack. He assured us that this business about amendments was mere “formal democracy”. As “lots of people” had been unable to come, some for very good reason, to take decisions on changing the platform would be “denying their rights”. If the platform were amended “without involving all the people signed up”, that would be undemocratic. So what is he proposing? A postal ballot, an email poll, a focus group? Maybe the “rotten methods” of New Labour appeal to him? But the usual practice on the left is to call a meeting with due notice, ask for motions, etc, and take votes.
Interestingly, some of those arguing in support of the Go4 appeared to have their lines crossed. One comrade stated that the platform had been “too long on the website for it to be changed” - exactly the opposite of comrade Wrack’s position, that it had not been there long enough.
More independent-minded comrades saw through all this. Moshé Machover said that, if we were to accept the arguments of the Go4, there would be “no end to indicative voting”. Every meeting might be deemed insufficiently representative to make a firm decision (or a decision not to the liking of the leadership, he might have added).
For his part, Ian Donovan asked a telling question: surely we will be endorsing the platform here? If so it must be open to amendments, he pointed out. No-one answered comrade Donovan’s question, but the Go4 comrades had obviously thought of that one. If the statement were to be put to the meeting for endorsement, that would mean taking ownership of it away from platform signatories, atomised or otherwise. Theoretically we might reject it and then what would happen to their “rights”? So the implication was that simply by signing up we have endorsed the platform in every respect. The Socialist Platform thereby becomes akin to tablets of stone. A credo to believe in, but not to change.
Unfortunately, when it came to the plebiscite, however, the Go4’s arguments carried the day by 26 votes to 17. There were to be only indicative votes on the amendments and no vote at all to endorse the platform.
The subsequent Go4 circular put it this way: “… it was democratically decided to adopt the outgoing working group’s agenda and not to amend the statement, but to allow more time for debate and discussion” (email, September 15). Except, of course, there will be no further debate and discussion on the Socialist Platform.
Comrade Lawrence now proposed moving on to the motion on the involvement of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the SP (although she had to concede that she had forgotten what ‘AWL’ stands for).
The CPGB had agreed a composite motion with comrade Donovan, stating that support for the AWL’s “social-imperialism” was “not compatible with support for the Socialist Platform”, which “opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions”. Half a dozen or so AWLers had signed up to a platform to which their practical policy was diametrically opposed. Around that number were present on September 14.
In moving the motion, comrade Donovan stated that the AWL is “more rightwing” than the Left Party Platform, since it actually “preferred US imperialism to Iraq” and therefore refused to oppose the invasion of that country. The LPP in its “own flawed way has a better position”, he concluded.
Typical of the liberal mentality of those opposing was Mark Boothroyd, who said he was against “bureaucratic exclusions”. If the AWL’s position on imperialism is wrong, then we should “debate it out with them”, he said. A comrade from Brighton added: “If the platform is incompatible with their beliefs, that’s their problem.” He went further than Soraya Lawrence in one respect: he had “never heard of the AWL”, although “from the sound of it” he would “probably not agree with their politics”.
Responding to this type of argument, Mark Fischer of the CPGB made the simple point that “within any organisation there are boundaries”. To take an extreme example, we would not accept a supporter of the English Defence League, would we (not that he was comparing the AWL with the EDL)? Comrade Fischer declared: “We take this statement seriously.” Which meant that we should try to ensure that people who sign up to the platform do not advocate policies that directly contradict it. Otherwise the SP would be brought into disrepute.
Other CPGB comrades argued that the AWL consistently takes up positions that are effectively pro-imperialist - it usually finds a way of arguing that it would be wrong to oppose particular “imperialist wars and military interventions”. Its latest position on Syria actually proves the point. It opposes a cruise missile assault on Assad’s forces, but only because this would not overthrow the regime and would have the unintended, consequence of strengthening the Islamists. Hence the main slogan for the AWL over Syria is for the withdrawal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces.
Ruth Cashman and Martin Thomas simply dismissed all of this as “lies”, without, of course, bothering to elaborate. Comrade Cashman also lambasted our alleged “inconsistency”. She claimed that “the CPGB approached us to join a revolutionary platform”, yet now “they want to exclude us”. This left CPGB comrades momentarily speechless, but it turned out that Cashman based this claim on a pub conversation she had had with a couple of CPGB comrades, who had stated that we would be looking to be part of a Marxist platform within Left Unity - although no-one had said we wanted the AWL on board (see right).
But Cashman’s ridiculous claim did the trick, no doubt confirming in the minds of many of those present that ‘the groups’ were all a bunch of sectarians, who are willing to change their positions at the drop of a hat and will stop at nothing to do down their rivals. The motion fell by 28 votes to 15.
Nick Wrack began his speech in the next session with: “I hope now we can discuss politics.” You might think we had been doing that, but comrade Wrack wanted to add to the prejudice of the ‘anti-group’ comrades, by implying that we had been wasting time with pointless wrangles.
In introducing the debate on amendments, he made it clear that he thought the SP could win on November 30. We already have 106 signatories against 150 for the Left Party Platform, he said. Obviously, then, if we are to garner sufficient support to overtake the LPP, we must not come over as too ‘extreme’ or as being overly influenced by a group like the CPGB. So “the statement, as it is, is enough to bring comrades together”. In fact arguments about a “semi-state” and “withering away” (contained in one CPGB amendment) would “need patient explaining” and so should not be included.
Then comrade Wrack pointed out that the statement had only been published six weeks previously and asked: “Can anyone seriously say it’s enough time to agree to changes?” He really did not seem to appreciate the ironic absurdity of that remark. By that I am not referring to the comrade who was against changes because he thought six weeks was too long. If a lengthy period of time is needed to consider amendments, why does that not apply to the statement itself? Surely it is too soon to submit that too?
He contrasted the bulk of the platform signatories with the “full-timers in the CPGB who have the time” for things like considering amendments. I understand that comrade Wrack himself is a full-time barrister, yet he is able to make the time to do lots more. Indeed, as he well knows, there are thousands of political activists of all persuasions who have onerous jobs and yet have time to take their politics very seriously indeed.
Comrade Wrack claimed that the meeting was “originally envisaged” as a way to “draw boundaries between us and the Left Party Platform”. That is only partially true. The meeting was “originally envisaged” as a way of debating and agreeing the SP statement in order to “draw boundaries between us and the Left Party Platform”.
Comrade Wrack said that the “tone” of both the letter from the CPGB and Mark Fischer’s Weekly Worker article, in response to the Go4’s proposal not to put amendments to the vote, was “unacceptable”. And “I take exception to being called manipulative and undemocratic”. Neither of the two documents had called him “manipulative” - although, to be fair, it is not so far off the mark in relation to the way he has ensured the statement cannot be changed before it reaches the LU conference agenda.
Comrade Wrack had ensured that the CPGB’s first, rather hurriedly drafted, proposed amendments to the platform, back in July, were circulated to the meeting. This was to demonstrate our alleged inconsistency, since they differed in several respects from those finally submitted a month later. He neglected to explain to the meeting, however, that we had been given just a couple of days to get our proposals off on July 29 before the SP statement was to be made public.
He also saw to it that a rather inane email was circulated from what he called a CPGB “supporter” who was unable to be present. She objected to the meeting agreeing to any amendments because that would mean “It would no longer be the Socialist Platform we signed up to.” If amendments were accepted, it would mean we would have to “spend our time up to November trying to get everyone to re-sign”. So it was better to stick with the current “imperfect platform”.
Obviously, that was the level of comrade Wrack’s argument too. It seemed to escape him that everybody had signed up to the platform despite the fact that they may have regarded it as “imperfect”. What normally happens under such circumstances is that a meeting of supporters democratically attempts to improve it.
Of course, the proportion of those able to attend such meetings is inevitably smaller than we would like - although, as I have pointed out, 44 out of 106 is a relatively healthy figure. Presumably even if 105 turn up, then the one person who cannot make it is being denied their “democratic rights”, if we are to take the argument of comrade Wrack seriously.
Finally it was time for the amendments to be moved. There was time enough allowed for them to be moved and discussed ... and it was a very revealing exercise.
As John Bridge pointed out, he, like the other CPGB movers, was “speaking in favour of communism”. The final aim of Left Unity should not just be to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist version of the bureaucratic-military apparatus. As the CPGB amendment puts it, “Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’. A moneyless, classless, stateless society, within which each individual can develop their fullest individuality” (my emphasis). This inspiring vision should be a central tenet for all revolutionary socialists and Marxists.
However, instead of comrades stating their objections to this and other CPGB amendments (moved by Mike Macnair, Emily Orford and Sarah McDonald), most spoke about whatever came into their heads during the subsequent discussion. No doubt it was primarily the absence of any substantive votes, but also the fact that there was a very backward type of politics on display that contributed to what was in effect a non-debate (the only amendment that was actually discussed - in the sense of ideas being exchanged - was the one relating to the European Union).
The chair, comrade Lawrence, made clear her contempt for the whole procedure when she stated during her own contribution that what really mattered was not some obscure amendments relating to distant aims, but getting out there and campaigning. Presumably in line with this rightwing philistine approach, when the motions were put to the meeting a number of comrades voted against ‘on principle’. So comrades from the Go4, for example, found themselves voting against “human freedom”, “full development of individuality”, the proposal that “the organisations of the working class must be democratically, not bureaucratically, organised” and that we should aim not only to “defend”, but “radically extend”, all past gains.
Comrade Wrack himself voted against all our amendments despite the fact that he had expressed a wholly positive attitude to them as recently as August when he attended the CPGB’s summer school, Communist University.
Nevertheless, all but one of the eight CPGB amendments were carried (the one on the EU being defeated by a single vote - 20 to 21). What is noteworthy, though, is not so much that the CPGB motion calling for a “semi-state” that is already “withering away” was agreed (20 to 16); or that the working class must commit itself to organising “democratically, not bureaucratically” (20 to 16); that Left Unity should have amongst its goals the “sweeping away” of the existing state apparatus (19 to 14), or that members be required to “accept” its principles and aims, not agree (22 to 14). No, what is significant is that comrade Wrack and co voted against. Sad to say, a defining moment. After all, an indicative vote means expressing one’s view, beliefs, commitments, etc.
Finally, the meeting turned to organisational questions: in the words of the chair for the session, Will McMahon, “how to build” LU and the SP. Since it had been previously strongly implied by several Go4 comrades that this was what we really ought to be discussing, instead of wasting our time on motions and amendments, it was surprising that they had not prepared any introduction for this session. Comrade McMahon began by lamely asking for suggestions from the floor. A few ideas were forthcoming - the need to get involved in LU’s policy commissions, the organising of speakers for branches, the preparation of motions for the LU conference, the necessity of an SP email discussion list, the importance of the People’s Assembly …
The meeting did indeed agree to set up two email lists (one for organisation, the other for debate) and there were 14 volunteers for a steering group.