30 January 2012

Better than disorganized dependents

In the wake of an NCAFC conference which I can firsthand tell you passed good policy but drained the batteries of its attendees, Edd Bauer, a sabb at Birmingham Guild of Students who was jailed and victimised last year for his anti-cuts activities, poses that "it is time the majority of independents got organised within NCAFC".

Edd is correct and the work must begin now.

The immediate inspiration for Edd's concerns is a change in the composition of NCAFC conference and its national committee. From a committee dominated by anarcho-communists with a relatively minor presence of organized groups (predominantly the Alliance for Workers' Liberty), we now have, thanks to block voting, a committee composed almost entirely of the alphabet soup of Leninist factions which have dominated the London student politics conversation for years: SWP/AWL/WP/SA/SBL/Counterfire. Many good independents have been dropped, many uncredentialed unknowns have come in (Andrew Tindall rightly points out the London-centric character of the list as well). While the new national committee has not yet met, the mere fact of its composition, a Leninist-dominated committee atop an independent-dominated conference floor and campaign, already alienates unaffiliated people; the posturing sectarian bunfights which wasted colossal amounts of time on a gruelling second day of conference only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes of the left.

Much of the blame for the breakdown in faith and function is being laid, in some cases opportunistically, on "Trotskyists" in general. While definitions in politics are often hard, and as Engels noted labels remain the same while political positions change, a Trotskyist could be reasonably defined as follows. A Trotskyist is of the opinion that:
* Society is divided into economic classes, a person's class character defined by the relationship between themselves and material things used to produce commodities;
* One of these classes, the working class, dominates society numerically, produces the overwhelming majority of its wealth, yet has little say over how this wealth is allocated;
* The working class can most quickly resolve this unnatural situation and take power for itself, in the long run abolishing the class system entirely, by organizing in a political party to coordinate and guide the working class;
* This party must also operate with an international perspective, recognizing that "the working class has no country";
* This political party should operate with absolute internal freedom of discussion and absolute unity in action ("democratic centralism").

While many independents may make principled objections to any of these points, in practice it is the last of these that brings down the most criticism. I will make no bones about this: it is standard practice for any centralist group, Trotskyist or otherwise (and indeed democratic or otherwise), to caucus, agree a line among all its delegates to a given event, and to argue in unison for that line.

When a single centralist faction makes up a small minority in an unorganized group, democratic centralism can have a profoundly powerful effect: in practice, much of "leadership" consists of simply looking like you know what you're doing and the Trotskyist perspective can rapidly raise a group's class consciousness, for example inspiring a local campaign to link up with like-minded groups elsewhere; the anti-poll tax campaign is an archetype of this.

A responsible, working class-orientated Trotskyist group which finds itself in a dominant position will take a similar perspective: it should not seek to dominate for the sake of dominating but rather pursue a building of the movement to the point that the unorganized are again the great majority, both pragmatically for the sake of expanding itself and altruistically for the sake of engaging and strengthening the class fight. There is, incidentally, no reason whatsoever for a Trotskyist to cover up his own political affiliation in a room full of friendly people; this goes against Trotsky's own advice and denotes a lack of political confidence which should be seen as a sign of disqualification from leadership.

When multiple minority centralist groups compete for leadership, all Hell breaks loose, to nobody's benefit.

All political factions have their tics and hot-button issues (I will bet you that I, a Socialist Party member, can turn any question into something about Liverpool Council in the 1980s). By and large, factions are also keenly aware of one another. Thus is it common for less-responsible centralist groups to lay land mines: a secondary but fetishized issue is introduced as policy for consideration and pushed to the hilt. Another group spots this and tries to push its own pet secondary issue. Losing, for either side, is inconceivable and so the civil war can only escalate.

Normal human beings are left wondering why we're spending an hour arguing uncivilly about whether or not Albania under Enver Hoxha was a workers' state.

The problem is only made worse in overly centralist, undemocratic factions: their partisans are given no chance to think, discouraged from listening to the mood of the room, and so can only respond to a challenge with shrill outrage.

All of us on the organized left must always remember that we are not fighting for ourselves; but neither should we be fighting for our parties. A political party is only a tool and that's all it ever was meant to be; the point of every single thing we do must be the class, and if it is not then we are not Trotskyists, we are not even socialists.

If the infighting and posturing within NCAFC has cost the organized left a way of communicating its ideas with the best independent layers of students, then NCAFC has no more point and those responsible should be ashamed -- but this too would require the acquisition of a novel talent.

Urgently, therefore, the class should act in the interests of the class. I am a Trotskyist in a political party but I cannot object to layers of the working class organizing themselves democratically in pursuit of progressive change; while certainly I would prefer everyone joined the Socialist Party (join online today!!!), the act of working class people banding together to challenge the political establishment from the left, in pursuit of democracy and liberation, is undoubtedly positive.

Besides, while I am of the opinion that the establishment of a new, mass workers' party is the key political task in the UK today, I am equally certain that this accomplishment will not be achieved by the mere amalgamation of left groups. We have the decade-old memory of the Socialist Alliance to remind us: without a movement behind us it doesn't matter how many factions are in the room.

In contrast, though, the red-baiting call to "purge the Trots" -- there have even been a few jokes about icepicks in circulation -- serve no good and echo warmly in Neil Kinnock's ears. As ashamedly as some self-proclaimed Trotskyists have acted in student work, the indisputable fact is: it is Trotskyists organising within the trade union movement who have greatly eased the transition of the PCS, RMT and my own union, the UCU into the most fighting trade unions in the UK.

So I would propose to Edd Bauer the following elaboration of his program:
1. Network independents and reasonable partisans. If the name of Trotskyism has been so poisoned by the behavior of some factions, I understand reluctance. The door is open.

2. Declare who and what you are and what you believe, as soon and as openly as possible.

3. Examine carefully the state of assigned political power within NCAFC (that is, the national committee) versus the state of real power. This will outline your strategic options.

4. Demand immediate rules changes within NCAFC along the following lines: establishment of an independent Democratic Procedures Committee; independent meeting chairs with teeth; absolute openness about factional loyalty, coupled by a means to exclude people found to be fiddling these rules (if you're in a centralist organization and don't declare it, you're being misleading). There should be no tolerance for "secret" factions. A genuine socialist faction should tolerate some reasonable restrictions for the sake of democracy so long as we can put forward our position in open debate, sell our newspaper, hold our own fringe meetings, and otherwise communcate our message.

5. Criticize, criticize, criticize. If a slate is imposed undemocratically, publicly denounce it. If an NEC member operates with a hidden agenda, expose them. If we cannot have democracy internally there is no choice but to try to establish it externally.

I've tried to be as open as I can about the direction I'm coming from: everyone knows my faction. It's clearly in my faction's interest to try to save the name of Trotskyism, which is part of why I'm writing this.

But any faction which wants darkness instead of daylight should be treated with suspicion. Any faction which does not trust its ability to make its own argument and instead relies on bureaucratic methods to protect its own power is unfit to lead. And any person who proclaims "I am the way" is, the balance of history tells us, a false prophet.


Anonymous said...

Just a small point. I wasn't at the conference, but I understand people from the swp, Revo, sbl and counterfire actually proposed a larger steering group, that would have meant more independents getting on. The outcome of the election - a steering committee where a plurality of groups and individuals are represented - is more representative than the previous ncafc committee. So, while I haven't read edd's post, I don't think his point stands on this occasion.



Edmund said...

A larger steering group was proposed but this does not automatically imply more independents would have got on -- each faction could simply have expanded its lists, after all. If my notes are correct, everyone who I know to be in some organised red-left sect or other got on.

(Interesting but not necessarily useful: The Green Party affiliated to NCAFC late last year but have no representation on its steering committee nor did they have any detectable intervention in the conference.)

Edward Bauer said...

I'm not sure if it should happen *Right now, it seems that launching a independents grouping right now on the basis that the new committee is representative and needs to won “back” would be delegitimising for the new national committee. Let’s hope will despite the clear factional lines may be able to get it together and use the NCAFC as more than just a platform for point scoring. It should certainly be done in the run up to the next national conference.

Your certainly right it is not fair to blame all “trots” in general for the factional infighting, some trotskyist groups behaviour was fine, however if this clearly trotskyist committee implodes in in fighting then I can’t see it reflecting well on Trotskyism in general. Many will be worried that the tactics used by one Trotskyist party could be equally likely to be used by another.

A larger committee is simply unaffordable, even with the current one the budget does not really balence.

Yes having a greater plurality of parties on the NC is good, however I don't think that a NC of around 75% trotskyist is representative of the wider movement or even the conference floor. This disportionate representation is as Edmund says due to effective party whips caculating best STV transfers, indepents obviously don't do this and just vote from someone from their local group.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edd,

My suggestion would be to use the regional representatives to bring more independents onto the steering committee, but I guess you would have already have thought of that!

It's a general problem with secret ballot, individual elections, that sometimes you can end up with a leadership that no one's happy with. So, yes, I agree that it would be much better if there were more people on the NCAFC leadership who weren't in one or other of the Trotskyist groups.

An alternative would be to use a slate system - that way you "see" the leadership in its totality, and can balance the number of people. The only problem is you might not get a plurality of representation because the majority slate wins and that's that. The STV system gives greater plurality, but... no system is perfect, all have their flaws.

There is a general problem with how the left groups operates and it does relate to the collapse of the socialist movement into a multiplicity of warring groups. But we also have to be aware that the backlash against that can be just as much "part of the problem", in the sense it can reproduce a kind of factional sectarianism in its own right which creates an "organised left versus the rest" type dichotomy. I know you are being careful not to suggest that, Edd, but I guess it's just about being conscious of that danger too.

Who knows, maybe new avenues are opening up for left unity at the moment, we have a very promising meeting planned to launch at Sussex Anticapitalists group tomorrow with a plurality of people, organised and unorganised, coming along.

Anyway, as Ncafc-patriot (!), I'm sorry that there were some bad experiences at the conference and the leadership outcome is not ideal. Although from talking to people and reading some of the more balanced reports, I get the impression that most of the sessions were pretty positive, it was only parts of the last day that was negative. I also agree that all the members elected onto the NC have a responsibility to work together in a fraternal way.


Luke Cooper