There are a sizable number of “unite the left” calls, campaigns, conglomerates and projects in Britain now. Do any of those calling for “unity”, a “new Marxist Party”, etc., have any prospect of uniting? Not at all! The unity projects serve as mere hypocritical packaging for the real message — “come join us”!
(The exception may be a small re-grouping between the International Socialist Group — Alan Thornett and Dr John Lister, a writer for the Stalinist Morning Star — and a few ex-Socialist Workers Party activists who sided with George Galloway when “Respect” split. The rumour that they will take as their common name: “Right wing ex-Trotskyist dim-wits for George Galloway and Islamist clerical fascism”, is, we understand, untrue.)
This is a “left” so confused that it let itself be led into a popular front with Islamist clerical fascists, with the tainted mercenary George Galloway as one of its chief tribunes!
The “groups” and “parties” are organised as tight single-faction organisations, with a pre-designated leadership, and at any given moment a narrowly defined set of ideas which function as shibboleths and, in fact, are not open to discussion. Internal dissent is not allowed, or is allowed only so long as it does not impinge on the cardinal doctrines or personages of the group. Dissent in the public press is very, very rare, and mostly unknown. Minorities are not allowed to organise freely.
Most groups have, internally and externally, the defining spirit of the narrow, persecuting, heresy hunting religious sect. The feeling and emotions and commitment which are a necessary part of any sustained socialist activity are focused on the group, “the party” and counterposed to everything else, including the labour movement.
Such formations are quasi-religious, as Marx long ago explained:
“The sect sees its raison d’etre and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement”. The sectarian leader, “like everyone who maintains he has a panacea for the sufferings of the masses in his pocket... gave his agitation from the outset a religious and sectarian character. Every sect is in fact religious... instead of looking among the genuine elements of the class movement for the real basis of his agitation, he wanted to prescribe the course to be followed by this movement according to a certain doctrinaire recipe”. To “demand... of the class movement that it should subordinate itself to the movement of a particular sect”, or to “want to preserve your ‘own workers’ movement’...” is likewise the mark of the sectarian. (Letter to JB Schweitzer, 13 October 1868.)
They need intolerance, a “party regime” that keeps an iron grip — as in the SWP — and the typical internal atmosphere of an intense religious cult — or else they would disintegrate. They need certainties and dogmas and — as in the Socialist Party — consecrated, infallible leaders, and a faith which separates the faithful and the saved from the sinners and those who are “anti-party”. These can be sustained and kept in place only when dissent is forbidden or limited and ritualised.
A political culture in which every participant has the taken-for-granted right to disagree with the majority, to pose awkward questions, to express dissenting opinions and to proselytise for them — that would be anathema to the quasi-religious “Leninist” sects.
They do not follow Lenin’s ideas, but at best those foisted on the Communist Parties by Zinoviev and then Stalin in the 1920s.
That was not the way the Bolshevik Party was run. Lenin explained in 1907: “The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings” (Collected Works volume 10).
Contact with a more open, democratic and rational ways of organising would dissolve the pretensions of the leaders of such groups, and dissipate the holy aura surrounding them, their ideas and their organisation. For that reason the groups not only control or stifle elements of such an approach within their own ranks, but also cultivate and foment extreme hostility and hatred for it when it comes from outside. Instead of teaching their supporters to reason about the world, they teach them dogmas, mythical histories and fictitious political genealogies about themselves.
The amazingly puny resistance and, afterwards, recoil which the SWP’s collapse into a popular front with clerical fascists (and into taking Arab-Islamic money, which is now admitted): that is the measure of the cult-sect nature of that organisation. Its loss of prominent members to Galloway and alliance with clerical fascism is the measure of the profound political decay at the heart of the SWP.
We must learn the lessons from the experience of so many who have tried to be honest socialists, but who tragically have fallen back into the primitive, semi-religious, sectist approach characteristic of the dawn of the pre-Marxist labour movements in the last century and earlier.
The pseudo-”Leninist” sect regime is immensely wasteful. It works to create splits out of every dispute. In any serious dispute, the minority must crush the existing leadership, be crushed itself, or split. This reality in turn works to justify the absolute predominance of the leadership. They are the alternative to splits, disruption and further fragmentation. If not us/me — chaos!
Such regimes cannot give revolutionaries a rounded Marxist education, or make them into self-sustaining revolutionary socialist cadres. That is one of the key reasons for the perpetual haemorrhaging on the left, and for the inability of so many, when they become disillusioned with their “parent” organisation, to reorient themselves and the parent group or, failing that, learn and start afresh on a more healthy basis.
Moreover, it works against spreading socialist ideas in the labour movement. An organisation where “the line” is established internally by top-down decree will use the same methods of proclamation and hectoring in the labour movement — with self-sterilising results. The worst example here is the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal (then united as Militant) for a decade and a half ran the Labour Party youth movement as an authoritarian “school” for obedient adolescents.
The root sectarianism is sectarianism in relation to the working class and its movement. Revolutionary socialist organisations do not sink into the existing labour movement and accept it at its present level. We try to develop it and lead it forward — as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, to represent the future of the movement in the movement of the present; but we do relate to the working class and its movement, at all its levels, as it is. Without such an orientation, Marxists can be anything you like, academics, ivory-tower prophets, moralising critics of society and of history — but they will not be serious working-class revolutionaries. Instead of their ideas being a guide to action, they will become the shibboleths of the sects into which potentially healthy socialist organisations have let themselves shrink and sink.
A viable organisation able to do the work of agitation, propaganda and organisation in the working class - the work that will make it a real revolutionary party - cannot be built except in the working class, in working-class struggle, and in the working-class movement. A “revolutionary party” or group, even a small group, that is not engaged with all the key political processes in the working class and in its existing movement, and which does not offer perspectives for the broad labour movement and try to carve them out, can not be a revolutionary party in more than name. It will be an a-political fetish for its devotees, not a political tool for working-class activists.
We organise the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the spirit of these criticisms of the “left”. We are a democratic collective, committed to rational democratic working-class politics. We conduct our discussions openly in the pages of our press. We have been able to keep that open regime without losing effectiveness in action.
A democratic regime can do at least six important things that its opposite has no hope of doing. It can:
• increase the chances of reaching clear and accurate conclusions;
• provide the organisation with essential insurance against the certainty that sometimes its established leadership will be wrong and require correction;
• make it likely that members and sympathisers will understand controversial decisions better;
• train those members and sympathisers in the art and habit of dialogue and debate which they need if the whole organisation is to be able to operate sensitively in the labour movement and learn from the class struggle;
• by treating the readers of the organisation’s press as adults, rather than children to be given bland, one-sided, simplified, “processed”, manipulative summaries rather than the real texture of the reasoning of the “grown-ups” inside the organisation’s committees, a democratic regime makes the press more educative and interesting;
• give minorities on big political questions a plausible guarantee that they will not be crushed, silenced, or forced to pretend they think the opposite of their real opinions, and thus avoid unnecessary splits.
The regime of the single admissible “line” gives the activist only the choice of being autocrat or silenced political serf. Hence overheated struggles for dominance, and the secessions of serfs in revolt against being gagged and suppressed. This aspect of the neo-Trotskyist left is a direct infection from Stalinism. It is in no sense Leninist or Bolshevik.
Generally, the argument that democratic openness costs too much in delay and in effort diverted from external activity is a short-sighted one, as a counting-up of the revolutionary energies wasted and dissipated in decades of excessive splits and sectarian dead-ends shows.
Yet, of course, democracy should not be confused with “the tyranny of structurelessness” — a chaotic mess where anyone can debate anything at any length and at any time. Democracy has to be structured to be real; and even structured democracy is not a cure-all.
Even the most democratic revolutionary organisation will founder if it does not develop a leadership with sufficient political capacity, coherence, consistency, vigour, authority, and ability to renew itself.
Such a group will differ from a sect because the leadership will not be unchallengeable or unremovable, and because everybody in the organisation will have equal rights in discussion and decision-making.
Better than the world we have of small groups of socialists maintaining a malevolent silence towards each other except an occasional snarl, would be one in which there was at least discussion and dialogue between the dwellers on the atolls of our fragmented “left”.
The most urgent questions that need to be discussed are those raised by the popular front of so large a part of the ostensible left with Islamist clerical fascism.
Demagogic hypocrisy about the immediate possibilities of ‘left unity‘ can only work against honest discussion.