Left Unity: Establishing freedom to criticise
Paul Demarty looks at the constitutional fallout for Left Unity post-conference
The constitution put to Left Unity members at Saturday’s founding conference was, as any attendee will be fully aware, a hopelessly labyrinthine dog’s dinner of a document. Out of the excruciating amendment process, however, some of its worst features were mitigated.
Chief among these were two thoroughly dubious propositions under section 7, dedicated to the rights of caucuses (the slightly eccentric name LU has given to what so far have been called ‘platforms’). “As a pluralist party, we recognise that a range of political points of view is a healthy source of debate and new ideas,” the document notes, before declaring, first, that “The guiding assumption and principle for the activities and existence of caucuses in LU is that they will not be permanent factions, but they exist to promote certain specific concepts, ideas or policies”; and, secondly, that “Caucuses may not organise public campaigns against the overall aims or policy of the party.”1
Fortunately, both these clauses bit the dust on the conference floor - a Cardiff branch amendment scotched the first and a Sheffield amendment, moved by CPGB member Tina Becker, removed the second. That they made it onto the agenda in the first place - and were removed hardly by the most overwhelming majorities of the day - demands explanation; it also, sadly, makes it necessary to restate the basic democratic principle of free organisation and association.
The first thing to note is the telling dismissal of “permanent factions”. Regular readers of this paper will not need reminding that there is one place, above all others, where permanent factionalism is a cardinal sin - the Socialist Workers Party. It is, on the face of it, rather surprising that a unity project motivated in significant part by recently departed former SWP members - lambasted and bullied the whole way through for factionalism - should have come out with such a formulation.
Yet it is not the first time this warning has been made. “Regarding Left Unity, I think we should bear in mind that structurally what tore the NPA in France apart was the existence of permanent platforms that started to pull it in all different directions,” Simon Hardy sagely informed his Facebook friends this September; “then when a larger left reformist grouping came along and then a load of people just decamped and joined that”. I suppose comrade Hardy can hardly be accused of permanent factionalism, since he decamped from Workers Power under no provocation whatsoever, barring some sharply worded internal bulletins.
I do not know how he voted on the Cardiff amendment in the event. Underlying this ill-fated formulation, however, as with so much else in LU’s Byzantine constitution, is the status of many of its members as disaggregated individuals - with a decent fraction further involved in more or less incoherent groups such as comrade Hardy’s Anti-Capitalist Initiative.
A significant fear among such people is domination by the organised (or better organised) groups on the far left, which were very much in evidence on the day - as well as the CPGB, there were members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power and others present.
The fear of the groups is well expressed by anarchist has-been Ian Bone: “For the first time an organisation to the left of Labour has been set up without the involvement of the SWP and the [Socialist Party] and the toxic twins, Rees-German, or based around a leadership cult like Galloway- Scargill-Sheridan or the support of a major union. It would be churlish not to recognise this achievement. They said it couldn’t be done and you did it.”2
The leadership cult thing is not entirely correct: this was, after all, a conference that resolved to buy Ken Loach a cake. The general picture is close enough, however, and it reflects the predominance of a petty bourgeois slave morality. The resentment of domination leads to the imposition of ever more draconian rules on everyone. We know what sort of people form themselves into “permanent factions”, and what sort of people campaign publicly against aims and policy. They are people with a firm understanding, correct or incorrect, of politics, and the heft to make that understanding a nuisance to others. They are, in short, groups - not discombobulated keyboard warriors.
I have argued before that anti-group prejudice is linked to suspicion of political discussion as such.3 I will not reprise that argument here, but point out that many comrades who opposed the amendments - and others - considered the whole LU platform debate to have been a divisive distraction from the ‘real’ work; an indication that such fear of ‘time-wasting’ is anti-democratic to its very bones.
All LU supporters should be grateful that the amendments got through, however. Firstly, unlike so much else in the constitution, it is in line with reality. This was a point made by CPGB comrade Jack Conrad from the floor - whether or not the constitution allows us to criticise, publicly, the aims and policies of Left Unity, we will do so; we will operate as a “permanent faction”, and we will hold closed meetings as and when we desire (another activity ruled out by the unamended LU constitution). It is up to LU comrades to proscribe us (and, as Gordon McLennan, Nina Temple and Arthur Scargill will tell you, it can be devilishly difficult to keep us out).
The same is true of the AWL and Workers Power, one assumes - and even the rapidly degenerating Euro- Trotskyists of Socialist Resistance, or the various loose ‘networks’ of the ACI type. Such groups may, on balance, decide that in the light of rules against public criticism, discretion is the better part of valour - but it is their choice. The idea that we or they are intimidated by any disciplinary committees LU may set up is transparently laughable.
This will inevitably be read as a self-serving argument - yet another little sect trying to take over! Actually, however, this is a fundamental democratic principle. Democracy is intrinsically a collective project - its very essence, and the reason it is so badly needed by the working class, is that it rewards effective, collective organisation. The democratic rights of individuals boil down ultimately to freedom of association, through which the individual can become realised.
This is straightforwardly obvious on the larger canvas of society. Our rulers are safe in their posts because theirs are the parties, the apparatuses of the state, the means of coercion and (dis)information. Theirs is the overwhelming dominance of the organised power of society. Countervailing forces - notably the trade unions - have been institutionally battered, and are smaller and less effective than they were three decades ago. The result is plain for all to see - despite the fact that the unions were cowed in the name of protecting democracy from ‘vested interests’, of preventing the ‘little man’ from being bossed about and labelled a scab by his brothers and sisters, democracy is hollowed out and the little man is in a worse state than ever. The very fact that people will join something called Left Unity suggests that, on some level, they know it.
LU is numerically dominated, as noted, by people concerned that no one group should achieve supremacy over it, and so its constitution is a complex ziggurat of checks and balances. In reality, however, members of any organisation - from a chess club to a party, to a nation - have only three basic means to challenge the people in charge: organisation, free expression and transparency. Organisation, furthermore, amplifies free expression, and provides the institutional weight to force transparency on a leadership that may not necessarily want it.
Endless rules concerning the ‘proper’ way to conduct discussions in a party, or the acceptable means of organising within it, actually disenfranchise everyone - not just people who happen, presently, to be involved in factional activity. Factions are dreadfully annoying until you are forced to join one, at which point their intrinsic necessity to democratic functioning becomes obvious.
The alternative, to be blunt, is Bonapartism. If disaggregated individuals are to be protected from forces larger and more significant than they are, then somebody - whether a charismatic individual, a bureaucratic committee or both - needs to protect them. If political discussion is divisive, then someone needs to suppress the splitters; if the pettifogging arguments of the left groups is an unforgivable obstacle to ‘real’ activity, then a power greater than them must intervene to ensure the smooth running of the machine.
In less than two weeks, we shall have a timely object lesson in where this all ends. The SWP will meet for its third conference in the space of a year; and for all the jeremiads about factionalism, the schisms among SWP comrades are more painful than ever. Bonapartism, since Louis Napoleon himself, has always had a definite shelf life. In the absence of forthright, vibrant discussion; in the absence of free self-organisation of those outside the inner cliques, perspectives become ever more absurd, political discussion becomes degraded and activity becomes a meaningless exercise in self-perpetuation.
It is, again, to be welcomed that Left Unity has spared itself that fate - for now.
1. http://leftunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/ Conference-Booklet.pdf.
3. ‘Politics for dummies’ Weekly Worker October 3.