John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

How did Communist parties handle issues of internal discipline and democracy in Lenin’s time? The recent intense discussion within the British Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and beyond has heard claims that the SWP rests on the traditions of democratic centralism inherited from the Bolsheviks.

John Riddell: Democracy in Lenin's Comintern

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Some extended thoughts about Stephanie Bottrill, the woman who committed suicide because of the bedroom tax.

Richard Atkinson: Death and the Bedroom Tax

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the killing of Blair Peach by the police. David Renton looks back at Blair Peach’s life as a poet, trade unionist and committed antifascist

Dave Renton: Who Was Blair Peach?

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Bunny La Roche of RS21 on Nigel Farage's visit to Kent

Bunny La Roche: Nasty Little Nigel gets a rude welcome to Kent

Financial Appeal

We're up and running! An appeal for funds to kickstart the IS Network

Financial Appeal

Left Unity: A Report from the Founding Conference

We built it.  Will they come? 

Based on the votes, I would estimate that somewhat over 400 people gathered in Bloomsbury on Saturday to launch the new left party first suggested by Ken Loach some months ago.  The attendees were disproportionately veterans of the Left, older and white, but there were a lot of them. 

There were few real surprises.  The ‘platforms’ debate was settled—although only a fool would say ‘finally’.  Putting it schematically, the debate was between those who favoured a ‘broad left’ party and those who wanted a more traditional hard Left organisation based on a programme redolent—to my eyes—of the sort of ‘where we stand’ programme that Trotskyist organisations sometimes publish. 

The Left Party Platform, representing the ‘broad left’ option, passed overwhelmingly with some positive but relatively minor amendments.  It gained about three quarters of the votes. Approximately another quarter aligned with alternatives such as the Socialist Platform.  This reflected what one would have thought was the balance of opinion in Left Unity.  

Perhaps the most telling moments in the conference concerned the resolution of the new organisation’s gender politics.  The practical questions were these: should there be “at least 50%” representation for women in any leadership, and should the organisation have caucuses and sections for oppressed groups?  

Not all participants acquitted themselves admirably on this question.  One man complained that “at least 50%” representation for women would result in women being numerically dominant most of the time.  He indicated that he thought this was “nonsense,” but didn’t seem to be able to say why.  Others suggested that to have a quota would result in people not being selected on the basis of their politics.  This seemed to carry the implication that the present over-representation of men is in some sense politically meritocratic. 

However, these delegates were fighting a steep uphill battle.  They had lost before the debate began.  Conference gave the most heartfelt and animated reception to those who spoke for feminism, and voted by mountainous majorities for “at least 50%” and for caucuses and sections.  These may seem like baby steps.  Of course they are.  But the signal sent by this conference is clear: the culture of the Left is changing and feminism is winning the argument.

At one point as the vote tallies were announced, and as if to dramatise the urgent relevance of ‘intersectionality’, a man griped from the floor: “what about class politics?”  

A woman nearby rose in heroic fury, and demanded: “Who said that?  

 “Er…?”  

 “Who said that!?” 

“What about class politics?”  The luckless man reiterated, to jeers and a few desperate, scattered hand claps. 

“Right.  I’m a woman, and I’m working class—how about that?  she snapped.  Exuberant applause.

There were, on the other hand, some quite surreal moments of a sort that only the British Left can deliver.  These included, for example, a speaker for the Communist Party of Great Britain declaring, in a voice full of portent: “The Communist Platform is not madness!”  

Another contributor pleaded that conference should not vote to admit children as members, and broke into a maudlin song about childhood in order to make the point.  With the best will in the world—and one has to admit that the voice wasn’t bad—this cut through me like a dentist’s drill.  Obviously only a complete bastard would say this, but then someone has to. 

A great deal of the conference was necessarily consumed by procedural minutiae and constitutional refinements.  This was exhausting.  The chair was a trembling wreck at the end of it.  I know I wasn’t the only one who, at a certain point in these discussions, began to check out.  There is a reason God made the smartphone, people, and this is it.  

The upshot is, we have a party.  It has over 1,000 dues-paying members thus far, 10,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook, thirty seven branches, and now a constitution and a basis for action.  What can be done with this?  

I have participated in two previous attempts to build a left-of-Labour party: the Socialist Alliance, and Respect.  Both crashed against unforgiving structural limits, notwithstanding the strategic errors made by the leaders of those formations.  These limits began with the severity of the defeats inflicted on the labour movement and the Left in Britain during the 1980s; the collapse of that symbolic space where a certain type of hard Left made sense; and the sweeping completeness of the Blairites’ victory within Labour, such that our main social democratic party was already fully committed to neoliberalism before taking office.  

Whereas crises arose for European social democratic parties upon taking office and administering neoliberalism, no such crisis arose for Labour.  Anyone still a member of the party or voting for it had few expectations of Blair as a radical reformer.  When Blair’s record was worse than expected, members and voters withdrew from activity rather than join anything new, their demoralisation stronger than their outrage.  Even Stop the War, one of the few movements to genuinely merit the adjective ‘mass’, could only prise away one Labour MP.  That was George Galloway.  He did not want to leave, but was forced out, and did not bring a significant detachment with him.  The highlights and lowlights of his subsequent career are well known. 

This is the problem that Left Unity faces.  The UK has no significant communist or far left parties equivalent to those in Greece, France or Portugal.  It is therefore impossible to do what Left Unity wants to do unless there is a realignment in which a sizeable chunk of the Labour Party, including MPs and councillors, splits.  Moreover, Left Unity is not coming up on the back of some great social movement, and the wider left in which it operates is historically weak.  To all appearances, it has emerged at a most inopportune moment. 

And yet, one can’t wait for the opportune moment to do something.  By then the foundations should already be laid, or it is too late.  The challenge for Left Unity in the short-term is to stabilise itself, prove its ability to operate in adverse circumstances, collaborate effectively with those who continue to be in the Labour Party whether through the People’s Assemblies or more localised campaigns, and define a viable left politics that doesn’t simply speak in the idiom of forgotten eras of radicalism. 

In this respect, Left Unity does have some advantages.  Its veterans have had the chance to learn from the errors of the past.  It is not reliant on some great personality, nor is it an undemocratic lash-up of the extant far left.  It puts the politics of women, LGBTQ and black people front and centre.  There appears to be no appetite for inscrutable dogma.  And it seems to be genuinely prepared for the long haul: the slow, patient work of building its presence in communities, trade unions and social movements.  That gives us a chance, to put it no more strongly than that. And I don’t like admitting this. But I'm cautiously optimistic.

 

This piece was originally published by New Left Project and can be found here.

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Proposed draft amendments to Left Unity platforms

These amendments were drawn up by a working group drawn from IS Network’s ‘Left Unity discussion’ e-list. They are published here for further discussion within the Network and beyond.

They are intended to be submitted to and voted on at Left Unity’s founding conference in November, however we do not currently intend to submit them as a bloc. Instead it is hoped that they are useful to Left Unity activists as ‘model amendments’ when considering what to propose from their local groups.
   

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Steve Freeman: Towards an Alternative Platform

Left Unity is planning to launch a new party of the left. A number of platforms have been proposed including the Socialist Platform, the Left Party Platform and the Class Struggle Platform. The following paper is not a platform but a discussion about the possibility or necessity of developing an alternative to those currently on offer.

Since 1996 with the launch of the Socialist Labour Party there have been a variety of socialist unity and party initiatives, including the Socialist Alliance, the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect, and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). None of these initiatives has succeeded in uniting the socialist movement or building a real alternative to New Labour. Left Unity will be another failure unless we are able to learn from previous failures and satisfactorily resolve some important questions.

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Read more: Steve Freeman: Towards an Alternative Platform

Which way for Left Unity? The case for the Left Party Platform

A debate has begun inside Left Unity – the project to set up a new party of the left in Britain – about what kind of party it should become.

In only a few months, more than 9,000 people have signed up to an appeal by film director Ken Loach to set up a new party, and 90 local groups have been established in towns and cities across the country. But Loach – wanting, rightly, to be more a figurehead than a “leader” – did not put forward an elaborate political statement for people to sign up to, simply an appeal to discuss a new party and what it could look like. And that’s where we are today.

Left Unity, through its nascent democratic structures, has agreed to hold a founding conference of this new party in November. It will be open to all who sign up as founding members of the party. And it will vote on statements of the fundamental principles the party should stand for.

In the past weeks, two “platforms” – that is, cross-branch collectives of Left Unity members – have formed to put forward different founding statements: the Left Party Platform and the Socialist Platform. I have signed up to the Left Party Platform and the more elaborate background document that supports it. In this article I intend to explain why.

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Read more: Which way for Left Unity? The case for the Left Party Platform

Taking steps towards revolutionary unity

This joint statement was agreed by the International Socialist Network, Anticapitalist Initiative, and Socialist Resistance delegations; they met to discuss the formation of a united revolutionary tendency last weekend.

Delegates from Socialist Resistance, the Anticapitalist Initiative and the International Socialist Network came together on Sunday 7th July to discuss the next steps on the road to forming a united, plural and heterodox revolutionary tendency on the left in Britain. 

These discussions were born out of the recent crisis and split in the Socialist Workers Party, which led to the formation of the International Socialist Network, and also inspired debate all across the left in Britain and internationally on how we should move away from the top down and monolithic conception of revolutionary organisation that has proven so damaging in recent years. All of the delegations agreed that they were committed to building an open, democratic and radical left, which encourages free thinking, is built from below and can reach out to a new generation. Wherever necessary delegates tried to make clear the terrain of the debate within their own organisation to the other delegations. This was important for encouraging an open and honest culture in the discussions. It also made clear that the groups participating were not, and did not want to be, monolithic in their approach to revolutionary politics, but even in our own groups we were already attempting to practice pluralism.   

Initially discussion focused on a document from Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper (ACI), 'what kind of radical organisation?'. Discussion was wide-ranging but focused on the questions of building new left parties, trade union and social movement activism, and democratic organisation. Alan Thornett (SR) had produced a response to the document that focused on the difference between a broad party project and a revolutionary Marxist tendency, as well as raising some differences over how the question of democratic organisation was put across in the document.

After two delegate-based discussions of revolutionary unity it was agreed that the debate must be opened out to our wider networks and memberships, and a date for a joint national meeting was agreed for October. There was also a useful discussion of practical collaboration: plans floated for a joint 12 page publication, a common perspective for student and youth work in the autumn, working together to make Left Unity a success, and developing a joint BME caucus. For more information on these discussions then contact any one of the three different organisations involved, SR, ACI, and the IS Network. 

 

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Matt Hale - Brief thoughts on the Left Unity NCG meeting

Though not without problems, Saturday's National Coordinating Group meeting was generally positive and set in motion the process leading up to the November founding conference.

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Read more: Matt Hale - Brief thoughts on the Left Unity NCG meeting