What Sort of Party Do We Need?


(Apart from not pretending to be a “Party” when we’re not of course)

Following December’s “suicide conference”, it looks like we’re about to see yet another organisation emerge from the SWP. The fourth in 5 years.

One of the reasons many members were reluctant to leave the SWP was the lack of anything else. The alternative was the utter miserableness of having to establish yet another group on the British Left, and one that could only be smaller than the “Party” people had just left.

There is little more to say about the SWP’s suicide, and the 157 varieties of British left parties are easy to laugh at. But the benefits of some kind of socialist/revolutionary (the correct name is perhaps secondary) to both individual members and the working class movement as a whole remain. Many of those hundreds of people who have left the organised left over the last few years usually find it harder to be involved in “activism” without an organisation “behind” them. There are advantages to being free of “the party line” and many people have developed Marxist ideas positively. But without being part of an organisation which is an active part of class struggles, I feel that there is no connection between theory and practice.

Perhaps for these reasons, some sort of new organisation on the British left is bound to emerge during 2014. Those forming it, myself included hopefully, will be extremely mindful of the failures of the group(s) we have left, and the ones we decided not to join instead. Lessons have been learnt, and continue to be.

Many of us certainly know what sort of party we don’t need.

What Is Not To Be Done?

Most “revolutionary parties” around the world, despite all the theorising about the importance of The First Four Congresses of the Communist International, tend to base their organisational structures on the Fifth Congress of the Comintern and the 1923 conference of the Russian Communist Party.

This version of democratic-centralism has the Central Committee firmly in control of the Party – appointing all full-timers, using a slate system for all CC positions, no criticism of any Party position outside the Party, an expectation on all members to argue for majority positions publicly, a ban on factions, opposistionist excluded from leading roles, a ban on “horizontal” communication between branches, infrequent internal bulletins, CC dominance of Disputes Committee, and “united fronts” set up by and controlled by The Party. All these “innovations”, or “improvements” on previous Bolshevik organisational methods, what I jokingly labelled “Magical-Leninism”, have recently been critiqued at length elsewhere. All I will say here is that any new left organisation has to be fully democratic.

Whether it drops the phrase democratic-centralism, as Socialist Resistance have done, doesn’t matter. The point is that the only safeguard against cliques, individual egos, and elitism is complete democratic control of any leadership by the membership. Which means not only guaranteeing members rights to criticise and argue within the group but encouraging members to think, criticise, and to take the arguments outside of the group too. It also means establishing systems of accountability for all sections of the leadership, and an openness about differences within the leadership in order to allow the membership to both correct the mistakes and decide who is fit to remain part of the leadership.

Tribune of the Oppressed?

 Nobody would be stupid enough to argue that sexism doesn’t exist it revolutionary groups after the events of the last few years. In fact it was clear that any left organisation was going to have to deal with this issue forty years ago. Sexism makes it harder for the working class to unite against the bosses. Anyone who acts in such a way as to make it harder for women to be fully involved in a revolutionary organisation should take their place alongside other scabs and racists. Furthermore, the best safeguard against sexism is the collective strength of women at the receiving end.

Any organisation seeking to unite workers across race, gender, ability, sexuality, nationality or craft needs to create spaces within the organisation where those potentially discriminated against can gain strength from each other, challenge reactionary ideas or practices within the group, and lead the group’s “intervention” in struggles against oppression. How the structures of such autonomous groups and a united revolutionary party would work I don’t know. I’m sure there are many lessons from across the world in the last few decades that we can learn from.

A “Party” for Workers

If the working class is the key to overthrowing capitalism, each local group’s priority must be its connection to the local working class movement. If it is not part of this movement, however small, the group might as well give up and go home. It must develop good local knowledge of every sizeable workplace, the state of union organisation, who the union organisers are, its history, and current issues. This also applies to unorganised workplaces. All workplaces should be discussed regularly by the whole branch.

Questions such as how to organise against an anti-union employer, whether to take up a Branch Sec position or what to put in a rank & file newsletter should be discussed by the whole group. Non-members should also be encouraged to bring similar issues and questions along.

Individual members in work should become union reps, recruit to a union, and get more involved with their union branch – including standing for lay officer positions and as delegates to local Trades Councils. These questions are issues for the whole local group and any local union caucus. Likewise for group members who wish to raise any issue at work, unionised or not – the branch meeting of any local left group should be a natural home for such discussion.

Members in the same workplace, the same union, with the same employer or in the same industry should be part of a local and national network of revolutionaries in the same workplace/union/industry – with email groups and meetings essential for sharing ideas and advice, but also working out strategies and producing newsletters.

Locally, members of any left group must work together to strengthen any cross-union bodies such as Trades Councils. And it must take initiatives in raising local solidarity (money, platforms at public meetings, access to support networks etc) the moment any group of workers needs it.

On a national level, members of the group should be involved in helping build wider networks of workplace militants in different industries. Existing “Broad Left” type groups are important, though tend to only exist at “higher” levels of the union. Perhaps more importantly is using other methods, including social media and even on-line discussions/comments in industry journals to reach out to the layer of workers who want to resist the bosses.

A Local Party For Local Revolutionaries

Traditionally, small left wing groups tend to be bogged down with so many serious national and international issues that they rarely have time to deal with local issues. Then they wonder why they do so appallingly at election time. Having watched the Green Party build up a base in Brighton over the last 25 years, and having observed closely those few socialist election victories such as Seattle, Dublin or Preston, it seems obvious that revolutionaries need to be far more engaged with local issues.

This doesn’t just mean joining the campaign to save the local swimming pool. It means keeping an eye on all local news, discussing it with others, and responding. Usually, this will just be a letter in the local rag. But the act of discussing it will help members engage with whatever issue is happening on their doorstep, and what a useful socialist “answer” might be. Also, getting letters in the local paper will help get their names known. Such issues can also be taken up on the local group’s blog or website, and then shared by all members via social networks.

Being rooted also means building personal relationships with other local political activists, most of whom will be “reformists”. This includes Labour councillors, Green Party members, anarchists, single issue campaigners etc. Sometimes alliances need to be made. Sometimes we will make enemies, but hopefully only because of political differences rather than sectarian behaviour.

All Power To The Imagination

One final word about what a new revolutionary socialist organisation might look like. It is of course true that it would have to be a national organisation. But one where all individuals debated how to lead local disputes and campaigns. And instead of simply following national directives, each branch can be a vibrant hub of imaginative ideas of how to take any struggle forward.

Too often, the socialist left seem content to act like those from the anarchist tradition have a monopoly on humour and imagination. But if you read Hegel in the original German you’ll know that this is a lie.

Some of my favourites that have happened locally include

  • A squatting “estate agents”, with pictures of empty properties and advice on how to legally squat

  • Getting Housing Association tenants to demand to be taken over by the council while the council balloted its tenants to transfer to a Housing Association – and letting every council tenant know what the HA tenants preferred.
  • Hanging banners from the cranes at the local docks after agency worker Simon Jones was killed. (The campaign went on to include meetings with MPs in parliament too)

  • Holding protests on buses when the bus fares rise – from refusing to pay to sitting by the window with anti-fare-increase speech bubbles stuck to the window

  • Turning up to MPs homes to protest about their expenses, and demanding the right to use their new toilet/duck-moat/TV

  • Getting local union officials to speak to people at “Occupy” protests

  • Getting local trade unionists to sign open-letters in support of left-of-Labour election candidates such as Caroline Lucas

  • Taking solidarity to picket lines differently – carol singing with for the FBU on Xmas Eve, cakes and flasks as well as cash, ensuring bin lorries or fire engines drive past slowly, horns tooting loudly

  • Getting trade unionists facing cuts to turn up to UK Uncut events and present the manger of the occupied shop with a bill to offset the cut to their service

  • Producing spoof placards, slogans, blogs, graffiti and leaflets to lambast those attacking us

  • Using organised laughter when faced with political opponents not worth engaging in debate, such as the EDL or Tory councillors


One thought on “What Sort of Party Do We Need?

  1. I basically agree. My one addition would be on the method of electing a leadership. This is very important and its not just about slates etc the problem is at the moment all the groups elect a leadership at some annual conference and then go away. Leaving the leaders to run the group but without anyone to recall them. This is just no good. In my opinion all leaders must be delegates from an actual body that can recall and rotate them.
    This replaces the slate as it replaces the annual conference. That can be used for other more important things like actually debating politics for example.

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