It’s participation, stupid

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Rachel Brooks discusses participation in revolutionary organisations inspired by Pretti Kaur’s article in The Exchange

 As large numbers of activists start to rethink the traditional mode of operandi on the far left, and look to develop projects that can push struggle forward, the question of participation is on the minds of many. How the revolutionary left can attract large numbers of people who will contribute a high-level of activity and theory in the fight against capitalism, and maintain that, is a crucial question in this context.

The success of Ken Loach’s call for a new party of the left has opened up remarkable opportunity for revolutionaries. The potential to reach large audiences and to imbed ourselves in communities is large and real, and this naturally means that forms of organisation are under the spot light. Whereas arguments have often centred on leadership and infrastructure of organisations (plurality and parties, the rights and wrongs of Leninism, etc.) the issue of participation in meetings and theoretical contributions are discussed, but not always explored. Great steps have been taken to begin to address the problems that arise from the experience many have in meetings.

Movements like Climate Camp and Occupy have carefully ensured that meetings are not heavily ‘top-down’ and conferences are not littered with too many speakers. Breakout groups in large meetings are often used to ensure that many voices are heard, even if it is in small groups. However, these movements – although important – are still not always on the radar for many groups in society that the far-left still struggles to engage with them. Trade unions, which are generally successful in engaging LGBT, BME and women enough to get along to conferences and meetings, continue to offer limited opportunities for full participation at them. A trade union conference, be it a national conference or a liberation campaign conference, will continue to organise Q&A sessions with the leadership where opportunity to ask questions are small. Workshops at large conferences will often have a table of speakers, with the audience sat in rows. Time to contribute is limited. With millions sinking further into poverty and worsening states of oppression and discrimination for minority groups, the need to participate – even if just to ‘vent’ – is as crucial as ever.

Preeti Kaur, of the International Organisation for a Participatory Society (IOPS), has recently offered an excellent contribution on the necessary steps that must be taken to ensure participation is central to any new revolutionary organisation today. Her argument does, however, pose a question: is it just in the domain of the revolutionary organisation though? Indeed the revolutionary organisation should be a role model, offering exemplary forms of organisation that allow all participants, or members of supporters, a voice and contribution. However, why should the traditional organisations of the oppressed, the trade unions, the social democratic parties and larger community organisations be allowed to continue running meetings and conferences that do not allow for full participation? It is a truth nearly universally recognized amongst the far left that white males (especially) exercise their privilege in society in these organisations. There are hardly any female trade union or labour party leaders, there are limited BME leaders (and none in the trade unions) and this is reflected in the organisations of the far-left. Simply put, it is not enough to say that you are against oppression: you must continue to reflect on your own behaviours, forms of organisations, leadership and structures to ensure you are challenging yourself constantly. It is therefore the duty of revolutionaries that intervene in larger projects, from trade union work to new political formations in the left (such as Left Unity) to challenge at every level. We should be looking at a future where a trade union leader is not allowed to talk for forty minutes, leaving enough time for three questions at the end.

Although much time has recently been dedicated to very worthy discussions around structures of organisations, the problem still exists that meetings themselves do not offer participants enough opportunity to contribute. The Occupy movements have made significant attempts to address some of these problems, however the left still lacks some imagination in this respect. When a meetings offers breakout sessions for discussions it pats itself the back, yet 99% of meetings will have a string of ‘introductions’, with little time for contributions and lacking a sense of full participation. Meetings – the bodies that discuss ideas, make decisions and educate an organisation in its own theory and ethos – must be reciprocal experiences.

More so, meetings need to anticipate the society they are often discussing building. Rather than a panel of speakers introducing some ideas, with the inevitable last minute panic that there isn’t a women or minority speaker, and then a discussion that follows, meetings could be carefully structured and organised so that the ideas are not the priority, but the participation is. With so many meetings focused on inputting ideas into attendees, rather than developing political engagement, we cannot honestly say we are anticipating any difference in society, merely mirroring the structures that ensure oppression continues. The question for leaders of all political bodies that are in any way involved in activism against capitalism – from labour organisations to grassroots campaigns – is what matters more to you, the preservation of ideas and theories or development of people, humans, who could all potentially offer something positive. Why is it that theory and practice continues to be divided when they are so evidently united? We must always question why some voices are louder than others, and what we can do to ensure that all voices are heard, and listened to.

Of course none of these ideas are new, and huge numbers on the left are positively tackling these issues on a theoretical and practical level. Preeti confirms this when she argues that we must not “reproduce the alienation we experience in workplaces with hierarchical power structures.” This is not an easy task, and it will take huge levels of imagination, creativity and self criticism, but if it means we can have meetings that allow for real growth and development of people and ideas, that reject the notion of that our leaders have it all figured out and the rest of us need educating, then it is surely on to something. If the new revolutionary left that appears to be forming can model these forms of participation than the pre-existing structures of labour should be encouraged to do the same.

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