What Should Radical Political Organization Look Like Today?

by Tom Walker on March 7, 2013

The following are video and edited transcript of a presentation given by Tom Walker on March 6, at a roundtable discussion hosted by The Anticapitalist Initiative, Red Pepper magazine, and the International Organization for a Participatory Society. Remarks by the other participants can be found here. Transcribed by North Star.

I hope people will forgive me if I start by saying a few things directly about the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which has been consuming some of my time and thoughts. I’m sure various people in the room have been reading the internal bulletins and the debates around this. Before I offer some wider thoughts about radical organizations, people keep coming up to me and they ask me, “oh, Tom, you’ve been at the center of this. What’s it really about? What’s the hidden agenda? What’s your hidden agenda?” And the answer is that there isn’t one. There isn’t a hidden agenda. It really is about rape, the crisis in the SWP. Specifically the appalling treatment of a young woman who made an allegation of rape against the party’s de facto leader, Martin Smith, and the various positions that people have taken since — on feminism, the internet — these were existing issues that have been debated, albeit unsatisfactorily, previously in the organization, but they’re being raised now as offshoots of that central issue.

I have to say that up until all of this came out I thought of myself as a pretty loyal member of the SWP, an organization that I joined because I’m a socialist, because I’m a revolutionary — not because I thought it was ideal, but because I thought it was broadly correct and quite effective. But by the end of that day I had decided that what I’d witnessed was that the leadership and a large part of the membership had gone rotten, and I started to try to figure out how that happened. And that’s where I want to come to what this meeting is actually about — how radicals should organize.

In those terms I think that the central lesson of the SWP crisis is this: what does Martin Smith or comrade Delta have in common with Lord Rennard of the Liberal Democrats? What does he have in common with a Catholic cardinal. What does he have in common with Jimmy Saville? The answer is power. And that’s what rape and sexual abuse are fundamentally about is this question of power. Crucially, power in the sense that they felt protected by their organizations because of their perceived importance within them and the damage it could do to the institution if made public, giving a strong motive for a cover-up, and from that I think you can draw wider conclusions.

I think this might seem a bit of a jump, but I think we have to talk about Lenin, so to speak. Whatever you think of Leninism, it’s the fundamental basis of most of these 57 varieties of left group that you come across. And for good reason, I would say, which is that we haven’t got a lot of working models of revolution. But the Russian revolution does provide one. And we can argue about what Lenin really did and thought, but the truth is that his mode of organization actually, even under the conditions of the dictator of the tsar in the runup to 1917, Lenin’s method then was more democratic than most of the far left today in the liberal democratic conditions of capitalism in Britain in 2013. The way that the practice of the revolutionaries in Russia under siege after 1917 was then generalized, I think you can see this line of descent, this line of ancestry, where it was generalized into the world’s Communist parties, and then from there to Trotskyists, and in that way contains many of the seeds of the left groups’ current authoritarian streaks.

I think as generally practiced, and not just by the SWP, this idea of Leninist discipline usually ends up meaning a leadership that are the main, if not the only, source of initiative and theory, and it tends to create a very clear hierarchy — whether that’s formalized or whether that is informal — that can shade over into a very militaristic leadership that comes not even by political argument but simply by commands and orders.

So you have a situation in Britain today, the world, in which the left is divided into these sects, each one with its own particular leadership who somehow never seem to get replaced (unless they split or something) and each one thinking that its in this very special position where it has its proud tradition and its been always correct about all things — this idea that we alone in the world, this group of however many hundred or thousand of us have the answers.

The trouble is that in your pursuit of this revolutionary purity you end up being cut off from reality, not just speaking a different language, but thinking that you know better because you have this transhistorical, universal understanding that the poor unfortunate ordinary person doesn’t. And in doing that you systematically alienate people. These kind of interesting new methods and theoretical innovations thrown up by the movements pass you by. Your ideas become fixed. Your slogans go stale. Your writing ends up sounding like its addressed to a world that no longer exists. You can’t make convincing arguments in contemporary debates, because you don’t understand what is being debated. And so the group becomes more insular and self-referential. It substitutes its own initiatives for engaging with the real movement. The organization’s culture gradually dislocates itself from wider society, and the leadership gets more powerful than it was to begin with.

In the case of the SWP this was done very deliberately to try to hold together an organization in a world that was moving to the right under neoliberalism during the 1980s — and then one day it explodes. So, to me it’s not that we the left, weren’t doing a bit badly before now. During all these years of capitalist crisis that we’ve seen, all of the different groups on the left have failed to grow significantly, stagnating at best in what should be our moment of opportunity. At the same time our ideas that we stand for are getting more popular — you just ask the person on the street what they think about the bankers, what they think about the 1% — but that isn’t translating into organization in the way that you would hope and that you would expect. More recently we fought these pitched battles over which group would get to declare themselves the leadership of the anti-austerity movement, when what we should have been doing is uniting against austerity and fanning the flames of that movement.

Now as I say the fight in the SWP isn’t directly about all that, but it has brought us all home and it shows us the awful end result of these kind of sectarian methods of organizing that are so dominant on large parts of the left. And that’s why I think we need to change.

So what should it look like? To finish I’m just going to offer a few of what I think should be watchwords when talking about organization, and I hope this can be a starting point for the discussion.

Democracy — not just formal democracy in the sense that you have a leadership that makes all of the decisions, and then you have a conference that goes “yes we agree with the wise leadership!”, but actual grassroots democracy in which we participate in the decision making. It doesn’t sound all that hard but you don’t come across it all that often.

Pluralism — by that I mean freedom of different tendencies, transitions, debates, a bit of humility about our own traditions and how they variously failed, and willingness to engage with people of all traditions (or none).

Learning — left organization is always going to be a nonsense or turn quite quickly into a nonsense if it isn’t based on the movement and the actual struggles of the working class. We don’t have all the answers, and to learn successfully an organization has to allow ideas and experience to flow from the bottom up and not have everything posed from the top-down. And that can be how you build something that can be hospitable for mass membership, instead of constantly driving people away.

Experimental — what we have isn’t working. We don’t know what is going to work, so the important thing to do is to experiment, to try different things even if they seem to contradict one orthodoxy or another. I think we need to be bold in that sense.

Finally, oppression. I think we need to put oppression, importantly gender, but all forms of oppression at the center of our analysis. Not just in words but in practice, and not just seeing it at this external problem to be fought in society, but as a constant danger within any organization. If we just go around saying that oppression has to be subordinated to class, we will end up replicating it in our own organizations.

I don’t think we should be afraid of the word feminism either, quite the opposite. For the vast majority of people it means you are against sexism and for equality for women. What are people doing saying they are against feminism? It’s incredible!

I obviously don’t claim to be the first to come up with any of this stuff, but I do think that we are in a moment where this awful situation that we’ve found ourselves in is sparking a wider wave of rethinking of our methods and organizations on the left, and I do think we have a chance to do something new, and to do something different.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Deran March 8, 2013 at 6:49 pm

It seems to me that there are really two organizational threads running through a lot of the article on The North Star. This topic; a new singular revolutionary socialist organization (with some sort of Leninist heart?), and the other topic seems to center around building a new, multi-tendency socialist coalition political party that would be a vehicle for activism and electoral politics? I imagine these as two projects?


Ben Campbell March 8, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Deran, as indicated in our About section, “we have no party line — except for a firm belief that a culture of open debate is required for building a left with real political muscle.” Thus, you will find many different arguments advanced here, which certainly contradict each other, and I think it’s a mistake to try to classify them in this way (i.e. “two organizational threads”).


Deran March 10, 2013 at 6:16 pm

@Ben Campbell. I was thinking about what you wrote, and I realized what I wrote might come off as suggesting that one or the other themes should be the focus of discussion. I don’t mean that at all. I enjoy and am engaged by the wide ranging discussions on The North Star. I guess I was just making an observation and thinking out loud. But obviously not communicating as well as I could.


Pham Binh March 8, 2013 at 9:29 pm

“Leninism” is pretty heartless, so I can’t imagine any such group at the heart of the singular organization/party you mention. I’m more in favor of option #2, the broader, the more inclusive, the better. Many regroupment efforts in the U.S. have suffered because they were too narrow (Trots + Trots; Maoists + other Maoists) politically to be anything better than a slightly larger, slightly more tolerant sect.


Deran March 9, 2013 at 11:41 am

I did read the about section. I was just noticing that there are two major threads going on.

I’m also more interested in the broad (socialist) front coalition idea. I’d even be interested in a popular front idea. But I’m most interested in a broad front.

I like what SYRIZA is doing in Greece, but I don’t think a like “Coalition of the Radical Left” would be useful in the US, a lack of basic political education would make organizations using such names here would seem doomed to isolation. That’s why “Occupy Wall Street” was so useful as a organizational name, and dare I say, meme. And I hate to repeat myself, but I think organizational names like “Peace and Freedom” could be effective. I like how the P&FP has an open name, but then makes it completely clear that it is a socialist, feminist, democratic and environmentalist. And I am all about aggressively moving “socialism” into the political discussion in the US.

“Leninism is pretty heartless”, nice riposte!


PatrickSMcNally March 9, 2013 at 1:21 pm

“a popular front idea.”

Traditionally in the USA, the Popular Front idea has by definition meant supporting Democrats. Are you suggesting that the SPUSA, CPUSA, ISO and some others would somehow be able to form a coalition which runs in rivalry to the Democrats, while advocating bourgeois reform instead of socialist revolution? Any party which orients itself around the types of reformist goals which Leon Blum was advocating in the France of 1936 will unavoidably be drawn to supporting Democrats. That’s just the way it is.


Deran March 9, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Indeed, “popular front” was a poor choice of terms. As I made clear elsewhere in my posts, I am not interested in the Democrats in any shape aor form. I’m over 50 and for all the decades I’ve been active in Left politics and activism generally the US Left has been plagued by those that want to push activism into the Democratic Party. Obama being the most recent example.


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