How should revolutionary organisations operate?
A contribution to the discussion on the construction and functioning of revolutionary organisations, coming out of the crisis of the Left by Mark Booth.
The revolutionary left in Britain is going through a period of renewal. Shaken to its core by sexual abuse scandals, the failure of the left to build a popular and united political and social response to the recession, bank bail out and austerity, hundreds of comrades are re-examining their traditions and practices with new eyes. Seeing the bureaucratised and ossified structures of their old organisations, many are looking to construct something new which can have modes of working and a revolutionary culture imbuing it which serve as a guard against the same problems arising again and being dealt with in such a destructive manner.a
The formation of the International Socialist Network, and the possibility of joint working between the ISN, Anticapitalist Initiative and Socialist Resistance creates the possibility of constructing a new organisation. On what principles should it be organised, and crucially, how should it operate?
What is the state of the left
At present the revolutionary left is fragmented into a myriad of competing sects, each with their own orthodoxy. Separate but involved in struggle alongside them is a sizable and growing autonomist movement, the left wing of the Labour party – marginalised but still organised – and thousands of ex-members of said organisations, burnt out, dropped out or driven out by the bad practices and political atmosphere of parts of the socialist movement in the UK. Many of these ex-members are active in struggles, and remain committed anti-capitalists, but find no home for themselves in the tightly controlled, doctrinaire organisations which make up the left.
Still more are the thousands who have been active in struggles over the past decade, as participants on marches and demonstrations of all kinds, against war, privatisation, and the struggles against sexual and racial oppression.
The revolutionary left is quite isolated from the mass of the working-class in its everyday work. It is overwhelmingly white, majority male and with a significant portion of middle-class and skilled workers making up its organised sections.
When rebuilding a new organisation and culture we can’t ignore how the present make up of the revolutionary left can affect its attitudes, prejudices, practices and priorities.
A new organisation has to function without replicating the dependency on a paid layer of full-timers, encouraged passivity and lack of critical thinking which many of the present left organisations depend on.
There needs to be en evaluation of all existing structures and methods, and exploration of ways of making structures and organisation more inclusive of poorer, less skilled and educated, more oppressed sections of the working-class, and those suffering race, gender and sexuality oppression.
While women make up a significant section of the revolutionary left, they have been treated appallingly for years, a situation which has come to the fore in the past years’ scandals. While many women comrades have taken up important leading roles in the movement, there can be a tendency to tokenism on one hand; placing women on platforms purely to create gender balance rather than because they have a contribution to make, and ensuring their presence through bureaucratic quotas.
Or voluntarism on the other; giving women leadership roles without adequate support and expecting them to lead and inspire others through the simple fact of their gender. This can have the exact opposite effect when female comrades are put in a situation where the high levels of pressure and lack of support demoralises and burns them out.
Their experience then serves as a negative lesson for other female comrades who see this as the inevitable result of trying to take on leadership roles, and reinforces in the eyes of sexist people the idea that women “cannot cope” with the responsibilities of leadership.
There are thousands of female activists in the movement who can and should have leading roles. Any new revolutionary organisation has to take the time to analyse and understand the way inequality between genders effects levels of political participation, and the way dominant cultures reproduce them through standard left wing organisational practices. The format and timing of meetings, the way speakers are selected, and they way arguments are conducted can create an atmosphere that inhibits the participation of women.
A culture focused on activism, with comrades worth judged on the amount of work they do can be exclusionary to all those whose responsibilities are greater due to gender inequalities, caring responsibilities, or whose ability to participate in activities is inhibited due to disability, or material poverty.
Despite its anti-fascist work, or rather because of its focus on anti-fascism at the expense of anti-racism, the revolutionary left has not created the deep roots in oppressed communities which you would expect. While doing lots of good work defending Muslims from Islamophobia and mobilising against the EDL, there has not been consistent work in defence of all migrants.
Namely the left has neglected the organisation of an anti-racist, pro-migrant movement which projects a counter narrative in defence of all migrants and the free movement of people, in opposition to the racist bile of the government and the press. This has led to the ruling class parties and far-right parties largely winning the argument that migrants are to blame for the crisis afflicting housing, social services, the NHS and other public services.
As well, the factionalising, manoeuvring, posturing and sect behaviour of large parts of the left can be anathema to people from oppressed communities, who have the least time and patience for the petty and sectarian behaviour of a largely white, male, middle-class dominated revolutionary movement. Time must be spent examining, understanding and rectifying the way racial inequality creates social, political and cultural barriers to the participation of minorities.
Devoting particular time to taking up and addressing the issues affecting migrant and minority communities with Britain will be a necessity if a revolutionary organisation is to make itself relevant to the millions of migrants and ethnic minorities which make up 21st century Britain.
Democracy at the heart of everything
- Election for all officials and paid activists
One factor which has crippled revolutionary organisations has been the growth of small but unaccountable bureaucracies through the practice of leadership bodies appointing full time activists, without having them democratically accountable to the membership.
Due to the lack of elections, the appointments are not to be on the basis of the popular will of the membership, but rather due to whichever individuals are best at espousing the desired line of the leadership at that time, or of reciting the revolutionary doctrines which that organisation adheres too. Critical activists or those from minority tendencies are largely excluded from this, leading to the creation of an apparatus which is homogeneous and largely loyal to the people who gave them their jobs.
Coupled with election procedures for leadership bodies like the slate system, which give primacy to a collective over individuals and facilitate the formation of cliques, a structure and method of operating was created within much of the revolutionary left which had little room for oppositional or radical leaders, and instead simply reproduced the dominant ideas of the clique which was running the organisation.
To guard against this and prevent its re-occurrence, the elective principles has to be embedded throughout the organisation. All leadership positions, no matter how small should be via election wherever possible. Leadership bodies should be elected on the basis of individual candidates and a secret ballot, not a slate system which can create bloc votes which work to keep all dissenting voices off the leadership, and lead to activists having to curry favour with the dominant clique in order to win positions.
Individiual elections creates uncertainty about who will lead, and can create a heterogenous and plural leadership. This is not a weakness but a strength as it forces activists with different ideas and perspectives to form working relationships, find ways of working together and combining their different ideas in a productive way. Rather than achieving “unity” through homogeneity it encourages a unity based on debate, discussion and compromise, while allowing differences to be aired to better inform the debate.
Paid full-timers should not be appointed by leadership bodies, but elected at conferences and local meetings. This creates a relationship where they are responsible and answerable to the membership, not to a leadership body. Making full-timer positions fully elected will create challenges and dangers for those wishing to take them on, especially in periods of high unemployment where activists do not want the uncertainty of losing their employment due to a vote. The answer is harsh and simple. If you keep doing what the membership wants, you keep your job. This also guards against leadership favouritism putting people in paid positions, and ensures those who work in these positions are popular with the membership.
Some might object this will turn these positions into popularity contests. Firstly, why shouldn’t leaders and full-timers have to be popular with the membership? Surely we want leading members to be popular and able to carry the members and organisation with them. This argument though also neglects and is insulting to the intellect and judgement of the membership. Being popular doesn’t have to mean you’re charming and have lots of friends. Revolutionary activists can (and should ) judge people based on their ideas, their work and their plans for developing the organisation, and not on whether they’re charming or good at talking. A capable organiser, or original thinker should be held in as high regard as activists good at speeches, or socially popular. If they are not, the fault is not with those individuals but with the membership, and the membership will have to pay the price and learn the lesson of electing people based on sociability rather than political and organisation ability.
- Right to caucus for all oppressed groups
“Caucuses are groups of individuals within an organization who identify with each other because of similar cultural or ethnic characteristics, economic or life circumstances, or who share a common sexual identity or experience. What distinguishes caucuses from other affinity or support groups is that caucuses are formed by groups whose members are traditionally under-represented in organizations because of the presence of discrimination and institutionalized oppression in our society (Beth Richie).”
Recognising the right to caucus is central to creating a democratic culture. With the knowledge that oppression exists within society, and will be reproduced within revolutionary organisations, members of oppressed minority groups must have the right and ability to caucus separately and develop their own autonomous organisations.
Caucuses are not a concession to “identity politics” or separatism, they are a recognition that the system does not treat all equally, and the structures, cultures and practices the system creates and inculcates in people permeates and affects everything, even those who are consciously revolutionary. It also recognises that different groups face different forms of oppression, different myths and stereotypes to overcome, within and without the organisation. We cannot just organise a revolutionaries, or as workers when white and black, men and women, able and disabled, straight and gay are not treated the same and do not face the same obstacles. By recognising the difference we enable a greater and stronger unity than that which develops when these differences are covered up in the interests of some abstract “class solidarity”.
Creating spaces for oppressed and under-represented groups to organise allows them to better confront incidences of oppression. By creating structures which can be controlled and run by oppressed groups themselves, it provides a way for these oppressive ideas and relationships to be challenged and changed, creates forums for discussion and debate not dominated by members of majority groups and creates structures that empower members of the organisation who are at a disadvantage because of the oppression they suffer.
The way to combat oppressive ideas and practices is not to develop prescriptive “safe spaces” policy which bureaucratically attempts to manage social relations, but to create actual spaces where through discussion and argument bad practices and behaviour can be exposed, challenged and addressed. Few rules of behaviour apply to all scenarios, so it is necessary to create a living space, constantly able to re-examine the relations within and without the organisation, guard against oppressive behaviour and empower oppressed members to take leadership roles and encourage greater representation for themselves within the organisation as a whole.
- Autonomy for branches, caucuses and fractions
Much of the socialist left adopts a top down approach to organising, with orders and campaign priorities being decided in national centres dominated by London, setting priorities and the agenda for the rest of the country. This “steering committee approach” robs local organisation of its creative autonomy, and leaves it dependent on orders, rather than seeking to develop its own activities and internal life. This stifles activists ability to respond to the situation as it exists in their area, and proscribes the way they must work, rather than leaving them free to incorporate their local networks and activists into national strategies and priorities as they feel able.
While national priorities and strategies are essential to building a strong and vibrant united revolutionary organisation, there must be recognition of the need for more autonomy for local and regional bodies to set their own priorities based upon their own assessment of local conditions and the challenges they face.
Allowing autonomy at a local level shouldn’t be seen as some accommodation to libertarianism or federalism, but actually as a precondition for the flourishing of revolutionary creativity and energy which is a key mobilising element for any struggle. The rank and file, the base, the membership, however you conceive of it, must rule their organisation, and this must begin at the base, giving them control of the branches and local organisations they participate in.
To draw in new layers, and show itself as a credible force, the socialist movement must demonstrate a strong commitment to democracy and freedom, including the freedom of action and of criticism. With a wave of revolutions sweeping the globe being carried out primarily for these two reasons, to act anything but this way is a recipe for isolation.
National coordination is vital, to set national dates of action, to coordinate joint actions and avoid replication and duplication of effort. But communication and dialogue must be real between the local and national organisations so national initiatives are informed by local realities, and local organisations can respond and participate in the discussion of where, when and how to coordinate national action.
Horizontal linkages should also be encouraged. Ideas should not just flow from local organisations to a national centre, they should flow between local branches, and working groups and caucuses. Branches should link up themselves, swapping ideas, proposals, collaborating on events, speakers tours and protests. Don’t wait for the centre to tell you what to do, contact other branches, exchange ideas and plan action around common areas of work.
The student campaigns of 2010 showed how creativity can flourish when the spread of the message, and its format and forms of struggle are genuinely left up to local organisations. The message (against fees and cuts) and the date and action (mass walkouts and protests) were set nationally/centrally, but how that message was communicated to the tens of thousands of participants was in the hands of local groups, and they responded with a mass of creative publicity.
While perhaps not replicable across every movement or situation (students probably have greater access to creative media and trained creative activists than other social groups, although not necessarily) this is an example of the natural human creativity that revolutionary organisation should be able to harness, and needs to be able to harness, if it is to construct a mass movement capable of changing the system.
Also genuine autonomy for local campaigning bodies gives those involved the ability to experience themselves the process of decision making, organising and developing political priorities and policy, the ability to learn how to self-organise, and learn from their mistakes. This also means permitting and prioritising political debate and discussion within local campaigns. Too often this is prohibited on spurious grounds, and campaign meetings serve as little more than mobilising organs, preventing them becoming the schools for socialist ideas which they must be.
- Democracy and debate to implement change
If we see the present situation of the revolutionary socialist movement as negative, then what should replace it? Firstly the acknowledgement that there are many different tendencies in the revolutionary socialist movement points to the need for greater tolerance of pluralism in the organisation we want to build. A recognition that differing views on a variety of subjects can and will coexist in the same organisation, without bringing incoherence to the political message, with a certain amount of respect and tolerance being shown towards those with different views.
Open democratic discussion must be at the centre of any organisation. Members and participants have to have easy access to all debates and discussions, and be able to contribute to them easily and simply. These are needed to allow all opinions and views to be heard, and a working synthesis to come out of discussions.
Democracy must come first, with proposals and ideas discussed at the base level of the organisation, and proposals assuming greater weight/strength as they gain support amongst larger sections of the organisation. We must resist the “urgency” argument, that the situation is so bad that it requires urgent action, and we don’t have time for democracy and debate.
This is a false counter position. The situation has become so bad precisely because a revolutionary movement existed where democracy and debate were stifled, and bureaucratic and sectarian practices were able to become the norm in the absence of democratic mechanisms to act as a check on them, or facilitate their renewal or overthrow. The time we are taking now to discuss things is in order to get them right so to put it bluntly, we don’t fuck it up again.
What does this mean in practical terms? The revolutionary organisation should have a website of some kind, on which minutes of meetings, articles about local work and information about upcoming protests, demonstrations and actions can be hosted. Local blogs could exist too where branches are big and active enough, but this will come as the group develops. The purpose will be so information can be quickly shared and accessed by all, and is available to all (with an internet connection).
If activists wished to change the priorities of the organisation and what it is working on, say because there has been a sharp change in the situation due to a governmental crisis, spontaneous strike action in one area, or an important demonstration has been announced, then their starting place should not be the national leadership bodies, rather it should be the branches.
Activists could write a short article making their case to be published on the website, and pass a resolution outlining the necessary action through their branch. The articles and resolutions could be circulated through a weekly e-mail out consisting of branch resolutions, reports and members articles, so all members are kept abreast of the discussions within the organisation. The option then exists for other branches to pass similar motions, write responses and contributions and engage in the discussion.
Does this sound time consuming? Yes, possibly, but only while the culture of democracy is in the process of formation. Once activists are accustomed to having to debate out changes in strategy and tactics locally and then work their plans out at a national level, rather than the other way round, then it could happen quickly.
What this would ensure is that most activists would participate in the decision making in some form, which would mean the plans when eventually formulated are actually realistic in how they can be implemented worked out, rather than a situation where a blue print is thought up in a national centre and handed down to branches to be plastered over their local situation, regardless of the local terrain.
This would help avoid the mistakes when initiatives are started and forced upon areas which are unprepared, or totally at odds with the present situation. It would be a step towards creating a culture where the national organisation functions to knit together the component parts into a cohesive whole, rather than seeing the branches as mere extensions or tools of the national organisation, used to mobilise people for demos and implement the latest plan dreamt up in an office block in central London. It would encourage collaboration, and start to link local organisations horizontally, creating a real network.
I’m in favour of some form of national leadership, consisting of directly elected members and delegates from branches. How this would develop depends on the growth of the IS Network, how branches constitute themselves and how they organise. Not knowing the state of the network, I can’t comment further on this.
Taking a position in a plural organisation
It is necessary for a revolutionary organisation to say where it stands on local, national and world events. The beautiful complexities which make the world so exciting and interesting to live in, also mean there will frequently be many different possible positions regarding even simple local issues, let alone ones with which the fate of millions are tied up.
In order to maintain freedom of debate and discussion, taking a position should not be proscriptive on individuals opinions and thoughts. It requires a a simple change in perspective, so positions adopted by leadership bodies and at conferences are not “the position”, they are the “majority position” or the position of the leadership. Minority positions and dissent must be allowed, and platforms maintained for them within the organisation and its media outputs. Comrades could be required to state the organisations position if speaking publicly as a representative of it, but they should also have freedom to state that they have differences, or that they are in a minority opposed to this or that issue.
This is important for allowing all views to be heard on a subject, and allow the possibility for minorities to become majorities through argument and debate, a possibility which is largely closed off in the traditional Leninist/Trotskyist organisation, where the leaderships dominance of the organisations media, clique ties and the narrow avenues for dissent prevent the arguments being had out.
This necessitates a tolerance of dissenting views which isn’t always found among revolutionaries, and must be developed. What also must end is practice of excluding different ideas. All ideas have a material base. If you talk about excluding ideas, you end up excluding people. Now some you may want to, and may have too, but excluding activists and providing them with no outlets is a recipe for splits. Some ideas do need to challenged, and in practice be excluded – racism, sexism and other oppressive ideas must be challenged, and as practical behaviours can’t be tolerated, but they can and should be debated with and challenged. This article from Mike Ely of the Kasama Project puts more eloquently than I can, why we need a change in our culture.
- Decision making
In a plural organisation with different tendencies and opposing views, how would we make decisions?
The revolutionary left tends to operate on the principle of democratic centralism, which is taken to mean maximum debate, followed by maximum unity in action. Once a vote is taken, the decision is binding on all members. There are various interpretations of this, with more flexibility on the issues of either democracy or centralism, but its adherence to this form of decision making which is standard across the Leninist/Trotskyist left.
I propose a rethinking of democratic centralism, what some might see as returning it to its true form, free of the Stalinist and Trotskyist distortions it has developed over decades of its use, reinterpretation and distortion.
What we call democratic centralism, as operated by the different left sects, is a caricature of democratic centralism, sometimes referred to a bureaucratic centralism. In the worst cases ostensibly democratic votes are used to force binding positions on actions which are unconscionable (the SWP CC’s approach to the rape allegations). What is more common is using democratic centralism to bind dissenting minorities into courses of action they fundamentally disagree with, while denying them the opportunity to air views and disagreements. Basically the democracy lasts until the vote, once that is taken, everyone shuts up and gets on with the work in the name of centralism. This is a recipe for disillusionment, splits and breeds a bad attitude towards dissenting views from the majority.
The analogy that is sometimes used to justify this is that of a union going on strike; everyone discusses why and if to strike, a vote is taken, and then everyone strikes together, refusing to strike is breaking the unity of action of the strike and disobeying the majority decision. Democratic centralism in action.
This is a useful analogy, but I’d like to deconstruct it. In no strike are voices of those who disagree with the tactic of striking, or who propose a different course of action, silenced. They are free to express their opinion as to what should be done before, during and after participating in the strike. So likewise majority votes of this type can be said to only bind people to a course of action, they do not and should not prevent further discussion and debate, and suggestions for alternative courses of action being proposed openly, at all times.
On actual participation in an action, while many people will go “on strike”, at present the active participation of many workers is low. Hundreds and thousands will vote for action, then only a few dozen will attend a picket line, while the rest use the day off to do something else. This may be partly due to low levels of consciousness amongst workers, as well as a hefty degree of scepticism towards the prevailing strategy of the unions among the rank and file. What it demonstrates is workers will vote and obey the democracy of their union, but for a strike which they don’t think will be that effective, they will not waste their time actively engaged in it.
This indicates that votes are not binding on active participation. Participation is predicated on convincing people to participate. In this case, if picket line participation is low, then workers have not been sufficiently convinced of the union’s strategy and vision, the leadership has failed to inspire them to greater participation and sacrifice, so the strategy for victory and vision accompanying it must be changed, as well as the workers consciousness.
What can we draw from this for revolutionary organisations copying this form of decision making? Majority decisions are binding on a course of action, and activists should not disrupt the course of action decided upon. Majority decisions are not binding on active participation, it is up to those proposing the course of action to persuade activists of the need to actively participate, by developing a strategy and vision which inspires participation and sacrifice.
Leadership bodies and members proposing a certain course of action have a duty to provide the membership with guidance and a strategy to win, not rely on bureaucratic rules and adherence to an abstract concept of “party discipline” to enforce participation.
Majority decisions pertain only to actions and positions, not to thoughts and ideas, which can continue to be discussed and debated openly throughout any course of action. Freedom of discussion and debate remain through the agreed course of action, as long as they do not disrupt the agreed course of action.
Encouraging this form of organisation, while not initially as mechanically effective as the “party discipline” methods of old, will over time become more effective as members are forced to become better strategists and mobilisers, and they are better able to use these skills in the wider working class movement.
- Self organisation a priority
The dependence of the revolutionary movement on a bevy of full-timers has sapped its organising and social capacity. Basically a lot of activists became used to having a full timer around to do things for them, and the presence of a full timer, and their position within the top down hierarchy prevented the necessary development of organising skills in some activists.
This is not to denigrate all the activists who are capable organisers in their own sphere of work, what it meant was the crucial area of organising the revolutionary organisation was a task given over to someone else, rather than the job of everyone involved.
Given the reduced size of revolutionary organisations, reduced funds and a desire not to reproduce the micro bureaucracies, a change of culture is needed. Local groups need to prioritise self organisation, meaning they need to elect their own organisers, develop the skills to organise themselves and taken control and run their local organisation. This will be time consuming, but is necessary. It will be hard at first, but members must utilise their skills and ingenuity to work out how to delegate tasks, share out the boring time consuming administrative work and involve as many people as possible in the functioning of the group.
Over time, it will hopefully be weeks/months and not years, local groups will become self sufficient, and activists will acquire skills and knowledge which can be brought from their activity in the organisation into their work in their workplace, community, university or school.
If we’re serious about trying to build organisations capable of transforming our entire social system, then we have to develop a culture of self-organisation. This will empower the membership, and empower the working-class which we are part of, imparting the ideas and skills needed to self organise our society in the interests of the many, not the few.
These are some proposals to guide practice, and help develop the discussion about how the ISN should function and what principles it should base its organisation on. Working out how some of the potentially more complicated aspects of openness and democracy and plural organisations would work in practice will be important for ensuring the organisation does not lapse back into the old practices and “traditions” which have been ingrained in socialist organisations for so many decades. I hope this article sparks some discussion about how to develop the group and make these principles a reality.