A New Culture and a New Approach: The Type of Organization We Need

by Simon Hardy, (ACI, U.K) on February 22, 2013

Originally posted at Anticapitalists.org — In the project of building a new revolutionary organisation which involves many tendencies and traditions (i.e., plurality), the most important aspect to get right is the balance between agreeing on positions and policies whilst respecting the heterogeneous nature of the project.

In other words, we have to learn how to mediate differences within the context of taking an active part in the class struggle. An organisation which adopts no political positions or coherent campaigning initiatives for the sake of unity is likely to be impotent, but an organisation that carries on in the same old method of constantly trying to impose their own viewpoint on everyone else will be prone to disunity and eventually split.

First off, a rejoinder to those that say the question of internal democracy is unimportant so long as you have the “right politics”. The idea here is that bureaucratism arises out of political sectarianism, and if you have the right line then workers will follow your lead, coming into the organisation in large numbers which in turn results in it being democratically strengthened. History has proven this mindset wrong. There is no automatic link between the right policies and organisational size. There have been some very large political parties in history which were acting in bad faith on a whole range of questions — Stalinist parties spring to mind. This didn’t stop them being sizeable parties. Don’t imagine growth, and therefore health, will come out of the “correct slogans”. But on a philosophical level, separating the politics of your organisation from its structures as if one will just sort out the other, is a false notion. The organisation is the structure through which your politics flow, through which they are implemented. A twisted and deformed, bureaucratic institution which alienates or dis-empowers the membership can never produce good politics. Even if it did, it would implement those ideas into the struggle in such a monstrous way that no good could come of it in the long term. Again, history has been a strong teacher.

So, how can we succeed where so many groups have failed in the task of building more open, democratic and active organisations?

We need a new way of thinking about the problem.

It is not simply a question of building a “new group” which looks like the old groups but has a bit more public debate, nor is it a matter of building a group which has a free-for-all attitude where individuals always take precedent over the collective. Whilst there are things we can learn from history, neither should it be a ham-fisted attempt to re-run the RSDLP/Bolshevik model, or Italian autonomism from the 1970s; grafting historical examples onto the present is always fraught with dangers and can lead to a doctrinaire attitude which is a recipe for introspective navel gazing. Our organisations politics and practices always have to be rooted in the present conditions for them to be relevant.

The problem therefore is negotiating the relationship between what kind of democracy can achieve a dynamic unity and the necessary structures of any organisation to be effective in politics. Since we are always taught that organisation flows from politics we start from this perspective – the left agrees on a great deal, but it often fragments on the question of how principles translate into practice. The organisation is therefore necessarily transitional, because it is becoming and moving, an organisation that can only be fixed at certain points but must remain elastic in some areas. But roughly we can see that we need an organisation which can make the radical arguments around the crisis: cancelling public debt, socialisation of the banks, democratic control over the means of production and distribution. We don’t need a warmed over Keynesian approach — the trade union and Labour left can come up with that themselves. We have to be arguing about the structural problems of both the present crisis and capitalism itself.

You talk the talk, but…

Does this mean creating a talking shop as some of our detractors might argue? This is certainly not our intention. The truth is that the spirit dies without the struggle of the flesh and we need an organisation which actively takes part in the struggle and can participate in debates around strategy and tactics within the movement (the idea that the left group always has the “right” strategy and has to intervene to “correct” the deviations of the movement is something that has to be mediated by the usually more important role of building effective solidarity).

The issue is that we accept diversity and disagreement as an inevitable feature of the left in its current state when no one tendency or trend can make a credible claim for hegemony (as the Bolsheviks could after 1917). The most important task is to change the culture of the left, to show that an alternative model is possible and endeavour to win wider forces to that model. When a worker turns to the left and says (referring to the divisions and fragmentation), “I will only join you if you get your house in order first”, we can reply with genuine honesty — “we are trying.”

How to organise inside and out

From this general picture we can begin to think that kind of internal life the organisation needs. The internal life that must be created is one which should value decision making from the base to the top. That means a completely free debate internally on any issue, voting on positions at branch level and then policy discussions going upwards towards the elected steering committee(s). A bottom up approach is the opposite of most organisations practices today, but if used properly it could radically alter the psychology of membership in an organisation. Importantly, it gives members ownership over decisions, rather than a central committee diktat from above which then can only be criticised retrospectively, and even then only internally.

Of course, any national organisation requires a national co-ordination otherwise it is simply a collection of local groups with no means to really synthesis or systematise any broader political campaigns or work. Such a co-ordination should be limited to a steering committee and regular meetings of delegates from branches. The steering committee should have limited powers (running the website, issuing political statements, corresponding with local groups, etc.), and the political autonomy of the branches and members should be respected.

Now at this point, many old Leftists might ask us what they see is the $64,000 question – is this a form of democratic centralism or not?

I tend to think we should steer clear of labels like that because relying on old phrases and practices lifted from the Second and Third international always has a tendency to smuggle in peoples’ interpretations of how it worked historically. Instead of a strict constitutional demand for following the “party line” we need to be more subtle and creative about it. The best approach to take concerning differences and disagreement is this — for unity in the class struggle wherever possible. If this cannot be achieved then the minority is free to publicly criticise the decision of the majority but they should do so in such a way that it does not disrupt agreed decisions. Any political debates within the group should seek to win a consensus where possible, to have a vote where necessary, and to seek to take the whole organisation forward. In fact, the kind of modified consensus recently developed by the non-hierarchical wing of the movement has many benefits, not least because it undermines the ability of one person to veto a meeting of hundreds whilst allowing for more creative forms of decision making than simple 50% plus one decision making.

However, any organisation must also be pragmatic in decision making, if there is no consensus and the process of arriving at a minimum consensus would destroy the essential antagonisms between two counterposed points, then a vote is going to be necessary. But at all times we emphasis democracy over centralism – except in political situations which require a quick decision to be made, more on that later. Emphasising democracy is not a concession to ‘petty bourgeois individualism’ as some Leninists will consider it, or a post modernist approach to decision making where we do not believe there is such a thing as “truth”. It stems from the fact that the left has for too long sought to build a democratic centralist model without a material basis to do so, i.e. both without a clear understanding theoretically of what that means but also the capacity to make it a reality. In times of political confusion and fragmentation we need to “bend the stick” towards openness, plurality and the recognition of a heterogeneous range of ideas on the left. Such an attitude is based not on a concession but on an acknowledgement that this is where we are and where we have to start from.

Public debate

In this sense the great majority of debates can be had “in public”, that is using public forums like websites or any publications that we might have. Traditionally the left has considered their slogans “a dialogue with the masses”, but we should also consider our discussion process and the way in which we seek to clarify positions and formulas as part of that dialogue. Any healthy left group should have no fear of “leaked” documents, since the great majority will be published online anyway. Of course every member should be aware that the internal life of any organisation is usually only of interest to the members of other groups, so any internal document should also be treated as an external document, written in such a way that any worker or young activists might find it interesting. Sectarian point scoring, name calling, obscure references and scaremongering are too often a product of the bunker mentality of the left and – like the state under socialism – should wither away as a new more open approach is adopted.

Despite having published several articles on Lenin myself, I am cautious of the because-he-said-it-it-is-true logic that Tom Walker has counselled against. Nonetheless, Lenin cited this open approach as healthy way of debating; “We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the Tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question.”

In the reunified RSDLP after 1906 Lenin argued:

“The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party.”

This allows for a range of debates and discussions to be had in public, not limited to a strictly divided internal life:

“Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free… not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism or such “agitation” (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited… The Party’s political action must be united. No “calls” that violate the unity of definite actions can be tolerated either at public meetings, or at Party meetings, or in the Party press.”

As we can see, even the the great centraliser Lenin had his more open minded side!

In recent debates it has been argued that this is a ‘freedom of the intelligentsia’, of ‘eclectic thinkers’, each one out to ‘promote their new book’. Such arguments can be easily rooted in the discussions on the intellectuals and the working class in the classical socialist movement, reflecting the fact  the absence of universal education meant that the intelligentsia had a more explicit existence as a privileged caste within society. At their worst, these arguments define freedom of expression as a quality of the middle class intelligentsia and counter-pose it to the collectivist discipline of the worker.

There is however an alternative tradition within the working class movement that saw the fight for freedom of expression for all workers as a crucial part of cohering a socialist culture. Lenin, for example, invoked the need for a socialist democracy to realise a truly free press:

Genuine freedom and equality will be embodied in the system which the communists are building and in which there will be no opportunity for amassing wealth at the expense of others, no objective opportunities for putting the press under the direct or indirect power of money, and no impediments in the way of any working man (or groups of working men, in any numbers) for enjoying and practising equal rights in the use of public printing presses and public stocks of paper.

There was surely a connection between this vision of socialism as truly free cultural expression unhindered by the power of money, and the great plurality of publications in the Russian social democratic movement of the time, debating out the big strategic questions in full view of the working class. Indeed, for a political organisation, full freedom of expression helps create a more organic relationship to the working class and social movements. It allows them to see the revolutionary organisation not simply with its leadership approved “policy” that it is vigorously trying to win you to, but instead get a full view of the process. The audience can see the debates, the process of decision making, they can form their own opinions based on the discussions themselves and not just the conclusions, and they can, crucially, be asked by the political organisation for their own view. The political party can learn from the working class, the working class can learn from the political party, and both can merge into a plural socialist movement.  

The “right slogans”…?

This attitude — that full and open political discussion and reformulation is needed in relation to the working class movement — is rooted in the assumption that we do not have the kind of all encompassing knowledge that can lead to correct politics or “slogans” (to use a left phrase) in all cases.

The new organisation we should aspire to build should be reticent about adopting slogans or “demands” which are too concrete in struggles or forums where we have little connection. (on a more radical note we should probably be more circumspect about the kinds of demands we raise anyway).

For instance, if the need for a “rank and file movement” — i.e. a grassroots organisation in the unions independent of the bureaucracy — is a correct strategic slogan for the whole union movement, this is only at its most broadest form.

The actual practical details of each union, its alignment of forces, the attitude and make up of its membership, all of this can only be guessed at unless there are forces involved in it to assist in arriving at clearer, more concrete positions.

On the international arena – as the recent events in Libya and Syria show – the left can be irrevocably divided, even ending up on opposite sides of the barricades. Of course, splitting over a revolution that is taking place thousands of miles away where you have no participation in it reminds us of the tree falling in the woods riddle – if a small communist group in another country splits because of a revolution they are not involved in, does anyone care? Once again, the new organisation should adopt broad slogans (e.g. against imperialist intervention) and leave the question of the dynamics of the revolution in the country up to a broader debate. Where there is general agreement on the progressive nature of the revolution (e.g. in Egypt) then a position is easy to arrive at, if there is disagreement, because of any ostensibly anti-imperialist posturing by a dictator, then it needs to be debated out.

The reality is that most groups in a country like Britain do very little practical solidarity work with armed resistance movements in the global south anyway so once more we have to be serious about what our capacities genuinely are, not simply theoretical debates about what should be done when we have no means to carry it out. And this relates to a more general point – the left needs to get a sense of proportion. In the early stages a humble approach is essential to formulating policy. After all, a few hundred people can affect very little, there is no need to force things to the wall every time, or to “crush” the opposition when whatever conclusions are drawn will have a negligible impact on the class struggle.

Whilst the general rule should be bottom up policy formulation and decision making, it is of course conceivable that a quick decision needs to be made, or a political statement released. A terrorist attack, a military strike, or some other even which occurs with no forewarning needs a response, and any steering committee which is elected should have the power to release such political statements. Of course, the forums are always available for any criticisms or counter-positions, but it could be damaging to a political organisation if it could not act speedily. This in no way impinges on the rights or capacities of members to criticise or replace a leadership that issues a statement that the majority of members consider to be seriously wrong.

Conclusion: a change in culture as well as organisation

Is this a manual to escape the history of splits on the left? No, if such a thing could be written someone else would have done it by now. To build a new organisation which does things differently it takes both a shift in practice as well as psychology, and it is the second which is so much harder to achieve. How many times have we come across jumped up cadre from some group who screams abuse at you or tries to prevent you from doing something because they seemed to hate you with a passion more than they hated the bourgeoisie? How such incidents should be consigned to the dark ages of the post war left, when we fragmented and turned on each other because of our isolation. Everyone started coming out with clever put downs for each other, laughing at the other “traditions”, emphasising what we disagreed with not what we agreed with.

Of course, the best guarantee against splits is success. People will be less likely to part ways if the organisation they are involved in is going forward – psychologically people tolerate losing votes and being in an organisation with positions they do not 100% agree with if they still feel positive about the project over all. Sadly, there is no way to guarantee forward momentum, we can only work for it. We have to keep in mind the strategic goal of working to build a plural and active socialist organisation which proves in practice that the left can build a more credible vehicle for its politics, as opposed to building narrowly defined sects which they they have the answer to everything.

If we want to build a powerful and credible left then the question of an effective unity and a serious organisation is not a secondary one to be left up to mass forces like the unions to launch new workers parties. We have to be energetic ourselves to identify what are the strategic concepts that we can agree on and then develop a practice which can allow the necessary effective action whilst ensuring democratic rights.

But what we need to get our heads around, which is even more fundamental, is that we need a new culture on the left. We need a left that can actually make inroads into working class communities; one that doesn’t prioritise front building and sectarian positioning over basic, bread and butter solidarity; a left that doesn’t breed monstrous hacks; a left that is accountable and honest about its mistakes.

Most importantly, it has to be a left which thinks creatively and openly about the situation and world we are working in and doesn’t reach for the usual old Lenin quotes to attempt to justify every turn or opportunistic manoeuvre. Let us state it clearly: organisational manoeuvres, front building and sectarian desires to “destroy” other groups must be abandoned if we are to go forward.

The left is entangled in a complex web of ingrained mistakes that have accumulated over the last 70 years. Even when it thought it was doing right it was doing wrong, and we have to reverse years of decline in a short space of time if we are to really shift the tide of forces in the battle against the cuts.

Moving away from the “factions without a party” model to a national organisation which aims to build a new way of working can only be a healthy development – even if it ultimately fails in any particular attempt. There is no sure fire way of success, but we cannot go on as before, and we want to work in a comradely way with anyone who is genuine about unity and about putting revolutionary change back on the agenda.

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