What kind of radical organisation?
A discussion about building a common revolutionary organisation, involving Socialist Resistance and the International Socialist Network, has begun. Here Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy introduce some principles to be debated in this ongoing process. A document from Stuart King can be read here.
- IMAGINE A CLASSLESS SOCIETY Capitalism is a system based on the exploitation and oppression of the vast majority so that a small minority can live a life of vast wealth and privilege. Our aim is communism – not the hideous dictatorships that denigrated the radical project in the last century, but a truly democratic, classless, stateless society where ‘the free development of each is conditional on the free development of all’. This vision must shape how we organise in the struggles today. The empowerment that comes from self-organisation and building from below is fundamental to our political project. Short-term goals need to be connected to the longer-term strategy of getting rid of capitalism. As technological development proceeds apace the question of democratically organising the labour process so that scientific breakthroughs result in cuts in hours, not job losses, becomes posed ever more sharply. Romanticism about mythical ‘golden ages’ of capitalism in the past need to be rejected. There is no going back and our future can be better if we develop a vision and strategy for anticapitalist change. A new left party will need to provide a space for different strategies and alternatives to be debated. It should be careful to retain its breadth but also provide effective, practical answers to the deepening social crises of modern capitalism.
- WORKING CLASS – OLD AND NEW The exploitation of labour by capital on the world stage is a complicated business. Due to the process of global integration over the last three decades and the growth in the size of the labour market in the West, there has never before been more people directly exploited by capitalist production. This means that never before have more people had a direct interest in getting rid of capitalism once and for all. Capitalism however reproduces this exploitative labour process anarchically. It creates hierarchies of economic and social privileges within the working class; between full time employees and the precarious, between the super-exploited and unskilled and the skilled, the employed and the jobless. Capital also readily exploits those outside of the ‘wage-labour’ relation. Peasants are driven into extreme servitude and poverty through the combination of financialization and capitalist modernisation. In the world’s biggest cities a vast army of formally self-employed labourers live at the mercy of the big banks. When we speak of a ‘working class’ that has an interest in getting rid of the system, we refer to all these social groups that are exploited by capital and can be drawn into the revolutionary movement. In short, we refer to the working class in all its cultural and social diversity. The radical left also tends to organise a layer of the working class that undertake relatively socially empowering forms of work (e.g. skilled jobs white collar jobs) and require a university education. Overcoming this isolation from poorer layers of the working class remains a central task of a new left, and recognising the problem is only the first step to solving it.
- A NEW LEFT Today the radical left are a small minority in most societies in the world. The marginalisation of groups that offer a radical alternative feeds into an absence of vision that blights the cultural life of modern capitalism. Elites take advantage of the widespread belief that there is no alternative to the system to present even the most limited of social reforms as utopianism and ‘socialism’. To rebuild a democratic, anticapitalist project we need to convince millions of people that they have the power and interests to overthrow the system and begin a transition to a new type of society, one where human need, not private profit, holds sway. Building mass movements of the exploited and oppressed is crucial to this project and we support every struggle against injustice or for progressive reform. Radicalise, democratise, and empower – these are the principles that guide how we relate to the emerging mass movements.
- POLITICAL ORGANISATION Mass struggles need to be connected to the aim of realising a transition to a new mode of production. For the great majority of working people in liberal democracies involvement in politics remains limited to the confines of representative electoral democracy. The way in which neoliberal hegemony has eroded political differences between major parties has however bred apathy with increasing numbers passively abstaining from electoral politics. We recognise that we need to bring the mass of the working class into an active engagement with politics in their localities and workplaces, creating empowering forms of self-organisation that can deliver victories in struggles and show in practice an alternative way of running society is possible and necessary. We reject the social democratic model of political party organisation – of a parliamentary elite in control of an apparatus that holds an unaccountable power over an atomised and passive membership. But we recognise that to convince millions they have the power to change the world, mass political organisation – a radically different type of political party – is necessary. A new type of party is needed that is democratic, built from below, pluralist, transparent, one that focuses on encouraging working class self-organisation, campaigning and direct action, and connects the daily struggles with the over-arching goal of a classless society. It should be open to people from different radical traditions – feminism, ecologism, anarchism, socialism, etc – and engage creatively with new ideas in today’s struggles.
- DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE The revolutionary organisation that we want to build should aspire to unity in action in the working class movement. A culture of collective political discussion and clarification should try to work towards a political convergence of ideas that can be translated into practical outcomes. But we recognise that unity in action is not always possible. The organisation that we build will have to allow different strategies to co-exist and be tested inside the working class movement. We expect there to be differences on the practical questions posed by the working class struggle: for example, how to relate to the Labour Party, how to work within the unions, what position to take towards the labour movement bureaucracy, whether to prioritise grassroots campaigning, and how to analyse and respond to international questions. Wherever differences arise they should be openly and critically discussed inside the organisation and in its publications and website. The traditional conception on the left is that members should be compelled to abide by collective positions on pain of expulsion. In contrast to this, we believe that this should be entirely voluntary. The only exception should be individuals elected to a national leadership position inside the organisation, parliament, or inside the labour movement. They should be expected to abide by the collective instructions of the grassroots membership and to resign their position of authority if they are not prepared to implement the collective policies.
- ANTICAPITALIST TRANSITION Our vision of ‘socialism from below’ provides a link between how we work in the movements today and the kind of society we seek to achieve. Democracy must be at the heart of the socialist project. We reject the politics of top-down control in favour of participatory forms of organisation that are built from the bottom-up. Tragically in the last century with the rise of Stalinism, the illusion spread that undemocratic hierarchies of control and subordination provided protection from reformism. The opposite is in fact the case. Only truly democratic organisation can provide any guarantee that the left will not abandon a revolutionary perspective. Only an empowered membership can stop elites coalescing that push movement or parties towards managing the system for capitalism (‘reformism’). Direct, working class democracy is also central to a revolutionary, anticapitalist transition. This requires a new type of state – one that is neither rooted in the architecture of capitalist production nor based on the nation-state –, but is internationalist and democratic. This ‘commune state’ must be the property of all the oppressed social classes. We advocate a new economy based on participation, collective ownership, coordination and democratic planning. An effective democratic structure (free elections, a free press, re-callable officials, rotation of office holders, constitutional rights and freedoms, etc) will be needed to obstruct the development of a privileged caste of bureaucratic officials.
- INTERNATIONALISM Britain’s has failed to come terms with its colonial past and present. It is one of a handful of global powers capable of projecting military power in far-flung corners of the globe. Its interventions into the world’s ‘trouble spots’ are exercises in maintaining its global prestige, influence and commercial interests. Britain is strategically aligned to US imperialism that has only been tempered, rather than decisively setback, by the failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to produce stable pro-American regimes. This has led to a retrenchment to imperial war as ‘humanitarian intervention’ that has to be clearly opposed. Our anti-imperialist perspective also has to take into account a changing international system. The new world order of the second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of Chinese, Russian, and European powers that have a similarly self-serving agenda. If the last decade was defined by anti-imperialism, this one has been increasingly defined by the struggles for democracy in the Middle East. The alignment of some of the leaderships of these movements with Western imperialism should not lead us to deny the essentially progressive character of their struggle for democratic rights and freedoms.
- FIGHTING THE NEW RACISM The last decade has seen the electoral rise of the far right, both the fascist BNP, and the xenophobic and nationalist, UKIP. Feeding this growth of the far right is the new popular racism that has targeted Muslims, asylum seekers and economic migrants. This new liberal ‘common sense’ that there ‘is really a problem with Islam’ that there are ‘too many immigrants’ coming to Britain, has been allowed to achieve a hegemony in political culture that then legitimises the rising tide of individuals acts of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim violence and abuse which blights the lives of ethnic minorities in this country. No platform for fascism – including physical confrontation and direct action – remains a central part of the response to the rise of the far right. But just as important is pushing for mass anti-racist campaigning that starts to turn the tide against mainstream ‘racist common sense’. Self-organisation and encouraging the development of Black-led social movement campaigning will be crucial for the radical left. This is not merely a question of the right to caucus – important as that is, but actively encouraging the political forms of self-organisation.
- SEXISM, OPPRESSION AND POWER Recent experiences on the left have highlighted once again all too clearly how anti-sexism must mean much more than a merely formal opposition to sexism within wider society. Having anti-sexist politics is a necessary but not sufficient condition for actively working in a way that is anti-sexist. The unequal power relations between men and women – expressed in sexual violence, rape, the double burden, unequal pay, domestic violence, etc. – that characterise modern societies requires special forms of struggle and organisation. Feminism should be a term of identification on the left – not a dogmatic way of narrowing the terrain of legitimate ideological debate. The creation of bureaucratic and unaccountable power structures in revolutionary organisations has a special impact on all oppressed groups, as they lack the proper, democratic channels to confront sexist and violent behaviour by members of the party elite, ultimately making the organisation an unsafe place.
- ECOSOCIALISM Capitalism is drifting into a deepening environmental crisis. Repeated failures to tackle global warming through fossil fuel emissions will result in catastrophic levels of climate change in the coming decades. The challenge for the left is that solving the environmental crisis requires political power and the development of a democratic plan for sustainable production. Outside of power we need to find ways of incorporating a “green thread” into the day-to-day social struggles, as well as working within environmental campaigns and protest movements.
- THE ‘OLD LEFT’ Traditional parties (or ‘sects’) of the radical left in Britain have failed to connect to the new spirit of democracy and self-organisation in the mass movements. Their ‘intervention’ into these movements lacks organicity. It appears not as a natural evolution of the movements but all too often as attempts to subordinate them to a preconceived dogma. The ‘control or destroy’ method of the left in the anti-austerity movement has persistently obstructed the building of a genuinely united movement, leaving it divided between several front organisations. These problems overlap closely with the issue of bureaucratism in the modern labour movement, where lay members feel alienated from complex and socially privileged bureaucratic structures that they have little control over. The weakness of the left and the decline of grassroots participation in the working class movement can foster dependency on the official bureaucracies. It would be wrong to abstain from the official structure of the unions for this reason. But we support wherever possible the development of grassroots and independent organisation that can act with the official structures where possible and without them where necessary. The creative formation of a ‘Pop-Up Union’ at Sussex University stands in a long tradition of grassroots unionism but it is also an innovative response to the legal and political challenges facing the modern-day labour movement. This kind of ingenuity will be central to building fighting unions.
- HOW TO BUILD A MOVEMENT The People’s Assembly is an example of the opportunities and problems of the left and social movements in Britain. Its size and popularity indicates the potential for a mass movement, but the way it has been organised risks negating this opportunity. Local people’s assemblies have no right to bring proposals or amend the statement that is being put to the conference. The leadership organising the event were never elected and will not be re-elected at the conference. A recall conference is promised but without a delegate-affiliate structure for local and national organisations to join (and have rights to bring proposals and elect a leadership) then it will lack an organised link to the anti-cuts movements at the local level. This means its aim of ‘uniting the movement’ cannot be properly turned from words into deeds. The Assembly remains, effectively, a rally or ‘spectacle’ rather than the concluding point of a movement, a process, of building from below. Criticism of the union leaders that have failed to deliver industrial action against austerity or the austerity-lite politics of the Labour Party have been actively discouraged. The danger is that it doesn’t provide a space for critical discussion on strategy or real organising. It underscores the need for an alternative type of politics on the left based on democratic organising, free and critical debate on strategy, and hostility to bureaucratic control.
- PUTTING DOWN REAL ROOTS There is a basic problem with how the British left campaigns that can be summarised as ‘the cult of the next big thing’. The focus tends to be on the next big conference, the next big demonstration, etc, and this results in frenetic bursts of activity usually followed by slump, then sometime later by another burst in anticipation of the next major event, and so on. Missing within this is a more permanent, locally rooted politics with a degree of permanence, able to draw in working people into a lasting political relationship with the radical left. A tendency to bandwagon jump needs to be replaced by a longer-term perspective. There are three major avenues for this that a new left needs to explore. Firstly, with the decline of the welfare state, the left will have to rediscover the tradition of ‘Mutual Aid’. Charities and religious organisations, rather than the unions or the left, tend to dominate the growing network of ‘Food Banks’ in Britain. But in the Bedroom Tax campaigns the left has been able to play a role in providing practical support and assistance, alongside political campaigning and activism. Secondly, Left Unity is an opportunity to build a lasting project to the left of the Labour Party. It is being built ‘from below’ through the formation of local organisations that then coordinate on a regional and national level. It is not dominated by a single left group and has attracted a diverse range of activists. It will only succeed if it retains this patient and democratic approach. A campaigning focus – with energetic activism and events – will, however, be needed give the project political momentum. A careful balance has to be struck between effectiveness and participation – with transparent and accountable structures the key to doing this. Thirdly, workplace organisation needs to be rebuilt at the grassroots. Patient work and activism in the localities needs to be coordinated through national campaigns and initiatives. The 80,000 votes for Jerry Hicks and the formation of a new grassroots project based on rank and file activism, Unite Fightback, indicates the potential.