Syriza in Greece has been successful partly because it gave clear political answers to austerity

Now or never? The case for programme

This piece is a contribution to discussions that have been going on within the Anticapitalist Initiative about adopting a platform for the organisation at the 2nd December conference. Especially the contribution from members of the Brighton Group who have argued against the adoption of a platform at this time. This piece is also an explanation, because I think it is clearer now that too much has been assumed, of why myself and others submitted our proposal and what is its intent/purpose.

I think that almost all who are making the argument that we should not adopt a platform at the 2nd December conference are doing so on the basis that we should not adopt a platform now rather than at all. So I will begin by making the argument for why we should adopt something (however bare boned) now.

There is often a lot of focus, from those critical of traditional left practice, on how the adoption of programme/platform/policy, whatever, acts to restrict and impose on members of an organisation. Probably it is due to my own background in politics, having been for a while around the CPGB who have a focus on ideas about democracy and organisation, but I have always tended to focus on the opposite. On how having a programme, voted on by the majority, as a central document for the organisation, actually serves as a tool of accountability for the members against the leadership – a democratic anchor. It serves to reign in the leadership, give it guidelines or strategy – so that it cannot just drag the organisation one way and the next. The leadership is (in ideal circumstance!) guided by the programme that the membership has discussed, debated and voted on.

Syriza in Greece was successful partly because it gave political answers to austerity

In reference to our own project here with the ACI – we do not have a leadership in political terms. Which I think is correct for us now. But the problem we do have in terms of accountability, I think, is one of the informal. Just because we do not have open policy, platforms, political boundaries, factions, majorites, leaderships etc, it does not mean these things do not exist. Political decisions, and sometimes quite controversial ones, which affect the whole of the organisation are still made. Political decisions about which content we promote and pursue on the website, about which we reject, about who we involve ourselves with, about who we don’t, about where the organisation is going and what is its aim, about interventions we make in different areas etc. Some of these, I think, should fall within the remit of what we should decide openly and clearly as an organisation as a whole, some are decisions that can be taken by those who can be held accountable, some are those which local groups and individuals should take divergent decisions on.

But I do think this lack of structure and some political basis has been a problem. In reference especially to who we involve ourselves with. There are no clearly decided political boundaries or parameters around the organisation and yet we have managed to decide that we shouldn’t involve ourselves fully with some on the left because ‘we are not suited for the likes of those people’, what they say ‘sends the wrong message’, they are ‘not in our spirit’, or even for their publishing of political material we disagree with. Well I do not think this is very healthy and I think that it gives too much scope for people to informally direct the organisation. If these decisions are made, if these positions are taken, they should be clear, formal and open – so that they can be challenged in a clear, formal and open way. And that is why I think it is important for us to adopt something now.

I will now try to address some of the reservations, as I understand them at least, that have been expressed by members of the Brighton group about programme in general.

I don’t think a programme, as a central document which left wing groups have traditionally adopted, is supposed to be a list of policies to serve the purpose of an election manifesto and nor is it supposed to be a list of all our opinions which can serve as a checklist of our radicalism. Though, yes of course, this is often exactly what a programme is for many groups. I would see it, though, as a document of strategy where we can try to understand the experiences of a history of struggle and where these can form into lessons which serve us a practical guide to our work in the here and now.

Which forces can motivate change? Who are our allies? Should we interact with the state? What is our relation to national borders and national struggles? How do we deal with forces of resistance that take on reactionary characteristics? Can we use parliament and other institutions to further our struggle? These are all strategic questions, the answers to which are generally guided by the big disasters for the left (Stalinism, the capitulation of the Social Democratic parties in WW1, the rise of Fascism etc) and also by the important experiences for the left (the 1848 revolutions, the Paris Commune, the 1917 Russian Revolution etc).

A programme, as I have described, is not a document which directs thought, it directs action – it outlines the practical work of the organisation. It should not affect the thinking and critical autonomy of the individual because it is not a document which binds and imposes, which all must agree with and argue for in their discussions with others. A programme, as I see it, is a document which members accept to work behind as part of the organisation – but which they do not as individuals have to agree with every part of, and which they are free and open to argue against and to try, at every opportunity, to change. It is not forever, unchangeable, set in stone – it should be discussed, challenged, picked apart, it should grow and develop as new experiences and new knowledge make old lessons sharper or completely refute them, in order that it be the strongest and most well thought out expression of an organisation.

The ideologically monolithic conception of what a programme and a party are, however, is clearly not a picture that the Brighton activists, and others who critique the practice of the left, have pulled from thin air. It exists in a very real way on the left today. And it contributes to the building of organisations where lively democratic culture, where active, thinking contribution and control from grassroots members, and where critical perspectives, are all detrimentally lacking.

Whilst this is a picture that undoubtedly we wish to avoid in our own practice, I think we should be more careful, precisely because we are in more danger here, to avoid the central argument which is actually underpinning this practice. And that is that unity is the antithesis of political disagreement. There is a sense, I have seen expressed, that we should avoid political discussion where there are deep cleavages, or that we should avoid the open and public display of quite distinct political opinion – focusing instead on those areas of agreement we do have in order that we don’t put people off or disrupt our unity. I can understand, from my own experiences, why people may tend towards this position but I think that this is one of the many challenges that are set before us – and that is to try, in our work together, to have a good natured, healthy culture, alongside the open and full expression of every individual and every group’s political opinion, clarified, debated, discussed and challenged, in order to make us a stronger and more well developed whole. The history of the left has shown us, on rare occasion, that this is not an impossible task.

This programme which I have outlined is a strategic document which, as some from the Brighton group rightly point out, will only have a real and full meaning in the hands of a future party. The ACI is not this and nor do I think it is growing into this – it is trying to contribute positively towards the process. From this perspective I am very sympathetic to the document the International Bolshevik Tendency have submitted to the conference, as opposed to the view I have heard expressed by some critics of the ACI which suggest it is doomed to failure if it does not accept a full programme from the beginning. I think that the answers to the great and serious questions of strategy which meet us now are not always as simple as they appear and it can be dishonest to pose them as such. They are steeped in a lot of history, a lot of discussion and a lot of interpretation. And this should, as the IBT suggest, be discussed and cracked open for all to engage with and understand properly (not least so that those who do not have the same experience and tradition of those of the organised far-left may gain full access to the process) instead of cack-handedly pasting an ill thought out programme over the organisation.

I think it is important, however, that not taking on a programme is done in preference for creating the culture of political discussion, clarification, learning, strengthening and developing in order that we can, in future, approach this question in a more serious way, with the active and critical contribution of everyone in the organisation. I do not think, though, this should be done in preference for, as Brighton suggest, “much more visual emphasis…on the local branches and the activities they are doing and planning”.

The problems with the existing left that have driven us towards our work in the ACI are not purely organisational ones and their solution is not purely one of organisation either. It is not just a case of the failure of ‘old’ forms and their replacement with ‘new’ – “working groups, events, supporting campaigns for public services and goods through alternative networks and media”. The problem is also a problem with the political and in the ACI, I think, it is important that we lend serious focus to this. Strengthening our understanding and critique of the political, in all our members, through open and frank discussion is just as important a task for us, in my opinion, as the activism and trust we are building on the ground.

I think that to argue that “the ACI, as an identity, must remain secondary to the local struggles we engage in”, as the Brighton document does, is at its end quite a wrong approach. I certainly agree with the sentiment as I would understand it, that to us in this period what is lacking, what is most important, is the organisation of the working class and not programmes (which we certainly have plenty of on the left!). But if we are to argue from this that the identity of the ACI is taking on this secondary role then I think it is important for us to ask ourselves – why are we not then doing our work in bigger and stronger, action based, united front campaigns such as Unite the Resistance or Coalition of Resistance? If we are not giving importance to our approach, to our ideas then to set ourselves up as indistinct from these campaigns in identity, but separate from them in action and organisation cannot help but bear the marks, however unintentionally, of sectarianism. I think that, instead, we should be optimistic in our hopes for the ACI – we should set ourselves the task of prioritising our critical perspectives and culture, and of taking them outwards, into the left – its groups, its campaigns, its united fronts – in order to help us overcome the stagnant situation that faces us all.

So, whilst I do think that it is important for us to pass something now, I do not think that something should be a full programme – yet. What myself and others have submitted, then, we have talked about in terms of a ‘platform’ – it takes on the form of a preamble discussing the political realities that lie behind our work which flows into a constitutional section discussing the aims and boundaries of the organisation. But what is the thinking and intent behind our submission?

Well first of all, and probably most importantly, it is simply an open expression of our views in order that we may contribute to that political debate which is so necessary but, as of yet, I don’t think, has taken place in a serious way.

Secondly we were dissatisfied with the other contributions. For myself I think that proposal one is too loose in its discussion of very basic things, for instance it does not discuss the very thing we are united against, capitalism, but merely its character in the current period. It is also far too specific on policy, especially the Middle East, which it proposes our network should be built around agreement upon. I do not think this is the kind of document it would be productive for us to take on. Proposal two is an intentionally minimal contrast to this which I would agree with in terms of the direction for our work it outlines, but which I think is insufficient for us to adopt based on the reservations expressed at the start.

Our proposal has not tried to be a full programme or even really a trimmed down version. It has tried to be what we thought the ACI needed for the moment. It has tried to be an illustration and an explanation of what has motivated the creating of the ACI. In other words a statement of the need for independent working class organisation combined with an acknowledgement of the poor state and degeneration of those existing forms of organisation. That, as I see it, is what has given rise to our work. Our platform has also then tried to explain, as prior, why exactly we think independent working class organisation is necessary. That is that the horrors and reality of capitalism demand a different world, that the conditions from which any desirable world can emerge must be the end of class and the end of the state, and that the move between the two is the revolutionary act of the working majority. It is light on policy – but it is explicit where we thought things needed to be explicit. And we have tried to assume nothing, to cut no corners – to make things as clear as they ought to be.

Our document has also tried to lay out some constitutional parameters as an of extension of the preamble. The important thing, and the important difference with proposal one, is that we have tried to be quite basic and open in terms of the aim of the ACI and who it wants to involve itself with – but to actually clearly outline these boundaries. I think it is important, especially, that this part of our submission is accepted. I think I can say with some safety that almost everyone in the ACI wants to avoid us being simply the next group, the next trend, the next party – as though this time we may get it all right – we want, through our work to have a positive contribution to the building of organisation, to learn and develop with others, and to help to transform the existing situation of stagnation and decay on the left. And, to my mind, this means precisely to engage with those we disagree with, those who can be sectarian, those who can be dogmatic and uncritical – otherwise how are we to break this widespread culture? We should be ambitious about our ability to show through our work, though our culture, through our building of grassroots relationships in action, and through our political thought and critique, that the left can and must build something better and more serious. To seek association only with those who agree with us and behave in ways which we approve of is precisely to repeat these same mistakes which many of us should be learning from after our negative experiences in the far-left.

It is not a document which we would expect everyone to agree with, but, yes, I think that if the majority of the ACI willed it to be so then it would serve as a good explanation and central document of the organisation for now.

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7 Comments

  1. Luke Cooper
    November 28, 2012 at 9:07 am · Reply

    Excellent and thoughtful piece Cat. I do feel that this discussion is only just getting started.

    We need more serious, historically and theoretically informed, debates about the kind of left we want to see and the role of the Anticapitalist Initiative within that process. I do still agree with the classical Marxist argument, which you put forward eloquently, that political manifestos are important mechanisms to make leaderships accountable to collective structures of decision making within any political organisation.

    But the problem is I don’t see how proposal 3, which you are advocating, does this, because it says very little which is directly meaningful to current levels of struggle. If you look at the materials we put out to the 20th October demonstration, they contained a number of policies for the anti-cuts movement – which I would of hoped we could agree collectively together in the spirit of platform 1 – but little in the way of a case for communism as such.

    There needs to be space for a degree of difference within the ACI over these more over-arching political goals, I think, at least for the time being. In terms of our conception of capitalism even, I would argue there should be space within a communist organisation in the 21st century for differing representations of the faults within the system, and differing conceptions of socialism and communism. Indeed, I thought in response to Chris Strafford’s polemical but quite apt point on the egroup, that platform 1 is “stuck within the capitalist realism its advocates seek to overcome”, that we could run a series of articles on the idea of communism on the website, which might be useful in cohering a collective conceptions of what we mean by that, rather than simply a formal adherence to it as a goal in the absence of the said discussion.

    More important it seems to me is that there is some degree of collective decision making over what we are trying to do and fight for in the struggles today. Part of that might be the distinctive ways in which we advocate organising (with an emphasis on local group autonomy), but it might also be an anti-bureaucratic approach to the social movements and building grassroots organisations within the unions. If you look at the programme that Imaginary Party put out on the student demonstration it was actually more concrete than platform 3, because while it was clearly grounded in libertarian communism it advocated a series of demands, which were concrete and potentially falsifiable (a necessary element of holding people to account for their policies).

    The reason that the “programme is crucial hold leadership to account” argument has its problems too, however, is because it doesn’t directly appraise the question that we are all grappling with. Namely, how to develop an organisation in which different strategic programmes can co-exist, and what are the broad principles that should unite us. In short, if we are building a movement in which different strategic conceptions can coexist together, then we have to also build forms of leadership that are able to recognise that plurality, without undermining the principle of collective, democratic decision making. In our new book, we highlight at one point the difficulty that the NPA faced on exactly this question, i.e. when plurality obstructs the collective lines of decision making and accountability on the basis of policy. It underlines the challenges in building a plural left that is at once radical, democratic and communist – it is no easy task to put it mildly.

    The ACI is also a work in progress, because we want to draw more people in who have divergent strategic conceptions and so there is one question around “who we are and what do we stand for”, and another around “how do we draw in broader layers into the ACI and what do they stand for”. I am ultra open minded about those questions but I do have informed criticisms of groups like the IBT such that, in my opinion, I don’t think they can contribute to the building of a plural radical left (they are opposed to it on principle) and remain lost as to why they are involved. I feel like saying to them “we were called liquidationists for a reason” (joke).

    On the general point, however, of what we are trying to do and with whom, we will have a clearer answer to those questions after this weekend. Not only ACI conference but Up the Anti too.

  2. November 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm · Reply

    Luke,

    From my point of view Platform 3 is much broader. 1 and 2 start at specific issues we face during the period, disunity in the anti-cuts movement, war in Syria, austerity etc. But then they say nothing on why we are faced with such turmoil, disunity and war and even less on how to overcome it. Where is the explanation of what capitalism is? We are called the Anticapitalist Initiative after all.

    Platform 3 goes a different way, it seeks to be the roots that positions, debates and actions grow from. You say that it raise nothing directly meaningful for current conditions yet we have stated a clear anticapitalist position on the state which is missing from all other proposals. For us, as anticapitalist revolutionaries, we know that when the police kill a person that it is not just a mistake or one bad egg. No, it is a sympton of the role the state must play in order to maintain the status quo. So we don’t want to reform the police, make them nicer or whatever, we want to disband and replace them.

    It is very common on the left to confuse a statement of principles in a platform with tactical questions in the midst of a particular struggle. It is right to raise demands to unite the anti-cuts movement or to support the Syrian masses against the regime, imperialists and the Islamists. Yet these things do not belong in a platform that forms the basis of a political organisation. They are too specific and are liable to go out of date. If we were to be consistent with platform 1 and 2’s method then they should be much longer, where is the mention of the Kurdish and Tamil struggles etc? Instead of listing which oppressed national minorities we support, or whether we support an armed uprising against a dictatorship. It is simpler to state the principle: internationalism. Basically saying we support them all. A political platform is not a step-by-step list to which campaigns we may run over the coming period. It is a broad statement of principles which will help define the kind of demands and campaigns we take up and serve as a statement of what we are about.

    In short a platform should say who we are, where we are, where we want to go, not list every avenue we may take to get to our goals.

    I think you are right that we are just at the beginning of this debate and Cat’s article along with the submission from Brighton is a very good start.

    • Luke Cooper
      November 29, 2012 at 9:13 am · Reply

      Hey Chris,

      I think there is something to be said for your viewpoint on the broad principles. The 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democracy was admirably general, something we pointed out in debates when we were leaving Workers Power, so I accept that there is a certain tension between platform 1 and this position.

      My point, however, in relation to Cat’s piece, is that it is difficult to argue such a platform could play the role of holding a leadership to account, because it doesn’t include policy positions directly relevant to the arguments that activists are making in the movement. So, in the event of a leadership of a political organisation taking a very opportunist or sectarian positions within such struggles, which is put across in such a way that it appears as a policy of the ACI rather than a viewpoint of one individual within it, more general statements of principle regarding communism, the state, and revolution, are not irrelevant, but certainly are of more limited value in correcting that mistake and holding leaders’ to collectively agreed positions.

      Cheers,

      Luke

  3. November 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm · Reply

    Luke,

    I think we both agree that the basis of a political organisation should be broad principles not a checklist of current campaigns or period specific struggles? I certainly think you should be supporting our proposal or some version of it going forward.

    The way a broad platform helps keep a leadership or a coordinating group in line is that it defines what are the political limits of actions we might engage in. For example, we may support the Iranian masses against the Islamic Republic (Internatioalism) whilst at the same time opposing sanctions and future military actions (anti-imperialism). If a leading body were to junk one of those principles we would be within our rights to remove it. For me the above principles are very relevant to the arguments activists are making especially in the Middle East at the moment where things are changing quickly. If Stuart wrote his proposal 12-months ago it would have been Libya being singled out not Syria. Platforms must be built to last longer than a few months.

    A platform should not be a list of which concrete actions or campaigns we may engage in. That would be stifling, easily dated and also removes any role for us to learn and develop slogans, demands etc in struggle. Such things are to be decided by local groups and national aggregates who can best understand where we are and what needs doing on the ground.

    • Luke Cooper
      November 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm · Reply

      I take on board your point and think there is a lot of common ground.

      Firstly, and at risk of stating the obvious, the general principles on the programme are always contested. No one would ever say that they weren’t internationalists but may well take quite different positions in relation to a war on Iran.

      Secondly, we started from immediate struggles because we think the ACI is the sum of its parts and should give expression to the campaigns and movements that we are already involved in as well as the direction we would like to take those movements (a focus on grassroots organising, etc). We have never really envisaged the ACI as a political party as such – a la the RSDLP in 1903 -, but a way to coordinate people who want to give a political answer to the capitalist crisis, discuss whether a new political party is necessary (I would say yes), and co-ordinate campaigning work.

      In that sense, we envisage it as a network, at least for the time being. Maybe a network could be defined according to general principles of Marxism / communism, but maybe also it can define itself with reference to its current practice.

      I am quite psyched for the weekend and think it will be a great couple of days.

      Cheers,

      Luke

    • December 3, 2012 at 8:27 pm · Reply

      “we may support the Iranian masses against the Islamic Republic (Internatioalism) whilst at the same time opposing sanctions and future military actions (anti-imperialism). If a leading body were to junk one of those principles we would be within our rights to remove it. For me the above principles are very relevant to the arguments activists are making especially in the Middle East at the moment where things are changing quickly. If Stuart wrote his proposal 12-months ago it would have been Libya being singled out not Syria. Platforms must be built to last longer than a few months.”

      This is true if support/opposition to x, y, and z simply means paper proclamations and not real-world action; the former is the hallmark of a propaganda group that mostly spends its time making arguments while the latter is where the attention of revolutionaries should be focused. It means nothing to anyone in Iran if you “support” them on paper or on the internet but if you publish their Tweets, organize a fund-raiser for their organizations, bring a speaker to a London university to speak out against their government’s latest repressive act, then that is a meaningful form of “support.” Ditto with Libya in 2011 and especially Syria today.

      So a platform for a propaganda group and some type of fighting organization are to a certain extent two distinctly different things. I don’t think ACI is the former and I hope it is growing into the latter.

  4. December 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm · Reply

    Although I am an ocean away from you comrades, I commend ACI for walking the walk and not just talking the talk regarding transparency, democratic organizing, and having comradely debates/discussions where dissenting minorities are not suppressed in the name of so-called “democratic centralism” or “party discipline.” It’s easy to criticize the failings of the revolutionary left and a hell of a lot harder to begin to overcome those failings in practice. So kudos!

    I have no idea whether it makes sense for ACI to adopt a “program” but I do appreciate the spirit in which this contribution is written. If only this was par for the course on the entire left, we’d be in a much better place internationally.

    The strong point of Cat’s argument is about accountability and how decisions are made. That is an important issue because without grassroots control, programmatic perfection is not worth much. I question whether or not any program can meet this need; the constitution, rules, and actual organizational practices I think are more important.

    As an outsider, platform 3 struck me as a bit restrictive and narrow. Or I could see how it would strike others, particularly non-Marxists, as restrictive, narrow, and exclusionary. A few illustrations:

    “A world which positively overcomes capitalism can only arise out of the collective action of the labouring majority. The struggle for the emancipation from the system of wage-labour, is the struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society.”

    This could easily be misinterpreted in a worker-ist or economist way. Students, the unemployed, and the differently abled also have a big role to play even though they are not directly producing surplus value.

    “Capitalism is an international system, there can be no oasis of working class power, no national solutions, we must organise to fight across borders creating an international revolutionary movement. Revolution cannot be achieved on our behalf or through organs and institutions which are formed around the interests of other forces. It must be our own act and it must be through our own forms of organisation.”

    No oasis of working class power — meaning what? No worker-owned co-ops? No worker-led revolutions in just one country to start with?

    No national solutions — what about places like Venezuela or Bolivia, where left governments have made dramatic improvements in the extreme poverty rate?

    These lines run dangerously close to “the only solution to x problem is to form soviets and smash capitalism,” a highly abstract and incorrect supposition. There is still plenty of room for steps forward that fall well short of transforming capitalist social relations. We are only fooling ourselves if we think the near-term answer to any/most of the problems we face is the immediate seizure of power by the working class because capitalism is somehow on its last leg.

    “Stalinism, social democracy, reformism, nationalism, bureaucratisation etc, have all affected and damaged the left, its organisations and its politics. And these must be understood and positvely overcome.”

    So any person or organized trend that is influenced by or looks to these currents is not welcome in ACI because they must be “positively overcome”? The fewer isms we are fighting against, the better I say. At least for the time being. I’m happy to cooperate and/or be in the same organization with people who have Mao/Stalin/Che/Kropotkin/Nasser/Kautsky posters hanging in the bedrooms.

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