Pluralism and left unity

by

DF

Canberra branch, Resistance

[From Resistance Bulletin #6, 2003]

In my opinion, one of the major steps Resistance can presently take in the quest for a united youth and student left is to transform itself into a pluralist organisation.

But first I want to clarify what I think the nature of discussion surrounding this question should be. For a start, comrades should remember that this piece is a strictly individual contribution, and is not the position, or “line”, of a tendency of thought within Resistance. It should be treated as such.

Furthermore, discussion on this issue should be focussed on what we think the tasks facing Resistance are in the current political situation, on what kind of organisation is best suited to taking full advantage of the present opportunities for the left in this country.

Discussion should not concentrate on historical questions such as the exact nature of the Bolshevik Party in the 1920s, or on the question of whether “Zinovievism” or Cannonism are true heirs of the Bolshevik tradition or major distortions thereof. These matters have lost a lot of their context in the current political situation, which experienced a major break, first with the collapse of the Soviet Union and then with the rise of a global movement opposed to the current hegemony of neo-liberalism and war.

The short 20th century

This break is on a par with the break of 1914, when the world was plunged into imperialist war with the support of most of the “socialist” parties, and this has led the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm to call the period between these two breaks “the short 20th century”.

This period was most marked by the creation of the political phenomena of social-democracy and Stalinism. These two edifices were the most effective brakes the ruling class of that period had to hinder the aspirations of the working-class movement. But the end of the short 20th century saw Stalinism, and the bureaucratically controlled states which provided its bulwark, disintegrate into nothing, and social-democracy transformed into what is now widely referred to as “social-liberalism”, that is, neoliberalism “with a human face” (at best).

Although the immediate result of this break was rampant neoliberalism on a global scale, it has only taken a little while longer for a mass wave of struggle reacting against this to form, one which is significantly free of the debilitating constraints of Stalinism and social-democracy. This throws up an incredible opportunity for the radical left both in this country and around the world. But we have to know how to capitalise on this opportunity.

In the words of the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, our present task is “not to return to Lenin but to repeat him”, which involves neither “nostalgically reenacting the ‘good old revolutionary times’ nor … the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to ‘new conditions’ but … repeating, in the present, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolutionary project.” More succinctly, “What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for 1990”.

There are many examples of parties that are doing this well. With the First World as our main reference point, one can point to the successes of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire (LCR), the Partido della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), the Bloco de Esquerda and others, as organisations grappling with the task of “reinventing” revolutionary struggle. In my opinion, we should be following their lead, and one of the key questions they have all had to address has been how to deal with, and what attitude to take towards, political differences both within and outside of their organisations. This is the heart of “pluralism”.

The problems with factionalism

The general instinct in Resistance is to counterpose pluralism with a homogenous organisation. This, in my mind, blurs the issue substantially. In any organisation of more than a handful of people, differences, even major ones, are going to arise — it’s perfectly natural. What matters is how they are dealt with. So, really, the dichotomy is not between pluralism and homogeneity but between pluralism and factionalism. As it stands now, Resistance is a factionalist organisation.

At first glance this may seem bizarre. After all, can anyone actually even remember the last time Resistance had real factions? Probably not — I know I can’t. But if such a situation were to arise, this is how Resistance would function, constitutionally speaking at least.

In the current structure, any major political differences surrounding the direction of the organisation can only really be resolved by a faction fight, by the division of the organisation into strictly defined and openly declared temporary factions, which will each submit their own platforms for consideration at the Resistance National Conference, and with each platform taking delegates based on the ratio of members each faction has within the branch. The faction with the most delegates will be victorious at the conference, and will then have complete control over Resistance’s leadership for the next year, although it may decide to grant positions on leadership bodies to members of the minority faction. After the conference finishes the minority faction must dissolve.

There are a number of problems with this method. Firstly, it essentially reduces the conference to a number-crunching session between the rival factions. With the result already decided, the two camps will remain in their trenches firing at each other, with the majority already assured that it will prevail and the minority determined to go down fighting. There is no room for compromise between the two lines, for a spirit of consensus to arise, or for a real, fluid discussion at conference to take place, with give and take between the two platforms.

The second problem with this method of functioning is that it rather arbitrarily straitjackets political differences within the organisation to two opposing poles. It ignores the fact that differences usually take place over a spectrum of viewpoints. In such disputes there are usually a number of members who will find themselves in between the two poles — this should not be seen as “sitting on the fence” but a legitimate viewpoint in and of itself.

In such a situation these members will be forced to choose a side, either one of which they will not entirely be comfortable with, or else not to have their views represented at all. Moreover, there will be those members who will support part of one platform and part of the other. Once again this is a legitimate viewpoint but one that does not have adequate representation in a factionalist framework. The only way in which they could be represented would be to create their own platform as a blend of the other two, which is an extremely unwieldy way of dealing with what will generally always exist: a multiplicity of viewpoints.

It also presupposes the existence of “opposing poles”, thus immediately assigning a major battle to any difference. Where differences are minor, they either have to take the form of a factional dispute anyway, which unnecessarily blows the difference out of all proportion, or more likely they have to exist within a factionless factional framework. That is to say, where votes are taken on the “general line” of a report, as the practice at Resistance Conferences has been, the only recourse someone with a minor difference has is to submit it as a written motion. This counterposition of a brief written motion to the general line of an entire report is rather awkward, and in general prevents the motion from getting up unless the steering committee decides to incorporate the proposal in the summary.

The other issue where a factional framework for resolving political differences is deficient is in the faction-power mindset. That is, that the respective factions have as their goal winning over a majority of the membership so that they can take complete control over the organisation. Any ensuing formal influence of the minority faction is purely at the whim of the majority faction, and can be taken away at any time.

This is an extremely unhealthy organisational practice and its only logical consequence is for the members of the minority faction to leave the organisation, possibly as a split. It is fair to say that this practice has been a major contributor to the plethora of competing and often indistinguishable Trotskyist parties in countries such as Australia and Britain today, and the thousands of disaffected former members of such parties in these countries.

The pluralist alternative

So what is the answer? What is an alternative model for resolving political differences? In my opinion, such a model is to be found in organisations such as the SSP and the Socialist Alliance in Australia. This model takes the following format.

Firstly, votes at conferences are not taken on a vague and indeterminate “general line of the report”, which can often be left open to the interpretation of the incoming leadership. Instead, they are taken on explicitly written motions, which, if part of larger packages, are usually split up into bite-size chunks for ease of distinction.

Any delegate at the conference can submit written motions, which may or may not directly contradict other motions. Additionally, any delegate may submit amendments to existing motions, which may or may not be acceptable to the mover of the original motion.

Changing the conference format to this was already decided at the last NC, and I think this is an extremely positive move. Already at the last conference we had numerous motions moved by delegates outside of the framework of the reports. This is a fantastic development for a vibrant democratic culture in Resistance, but unfortunately there was just no real room for the motions to have real effect within the erstwhile format. The new format will significantly empower the ability of delegates to influence the decision-making process at conference, without everything being already decided at what are constitutionally lower decision-making bodies, such as the NC and NE.

While this is a good start, it is only a start. In my opinion, in order to truly make conferences as democratic and as empowering as possible a more wholehearted turn away from a factional mindset and towards pluralism is required.

In my opinion we should move away from the concept of formal platforms. The new conference format means that differences can be expressed through counter-positional motions, rather than all-encompassing platforms. It thus nullifies the conditions that require formal platforms to exist. Platforms in and of themselves are not inimical to pluralist democracy — the LCR has platforms, and so did this year’s SA Conference.

However, in these cases they have a much more informal function, representing more loosely constituted tendencies within the organisation, rather than sharply defined factions. They do not really have a formal role in the functioning of conferences, and delegates are not officially consigned to one or the other platform, as they would be in Resistance’s constitution.

It is for this reason that I think that we should no longer vote on platforms when branches elect delegates for the conference. In all likelihood, this is generally not practised at the moment anyway, as it is largely meaningless when only one platform is put forward. Discarding the procedure of voting for platforms means that delegates can have much more freedom in discussion during conferences than they would otherwise, particularly in a situation of multiple platforms, and would result in a greater fluidity and dynamism in conference (and pe-conference) discussion than otherwise.

There is a valid concern that if no votes for platforms are taken, the delegation might not be a fair representation of the membership, that is, that those with minority viewpoints, by virtue of being in the minority, may be overlooked when it comes time to vote for delegates. The first safeguard against this is, of course, political: we should be an organisation whose members look past the various political differences to recognise the contribution each comrade makes to the organisation.

In addition, however, any such phenomenon can be organisationally avoided by changing our voting system from a first-past-the-post system to a preferential system. This means that a comrade could get high preferences from a minority of votes and get elected over someone with a low preference from a larger number of votes, ensuring that minority viewpoints are represented fairly.

This is the system that the Socialist Alliance uses, not to mention the SSP, most student elections and the Australian Senate. Among the left, preferential voting is almost universally seen as more democratic than first-past-the-post, so it puzzles me that we should use it for our elections.

This applies not only to conference delegations, but to all leadership bodies, branch executives, National Committees and National Executives.

The factionalist mindset

What I’ve talked about so far has been generally quite abstract, and dealing mainly with conference functioning, an essentially organisational question. Comrades may be forgiven for thinking that the question of factionalism is quite irrelevant, considering the rarity in which we have operating factions.
However, factionalism (as an -ism) extends much further than just how an organisation functions in a time of factional dispute. It gets to the heart of the organisation’s philosophy towards political differences, and its attitude to those who bring them up.

The essential philosophy underlying a factionalist organisational practice is that there is one, true Marxist answer to every political question, and that we are in possession of that answer. Anyone who expresses differences is thus treated as in some way “un-Marxist”, or “petty-bourgeois”, or their equivalents used in Resistance today, such as “adapting to the movement”.

This is part of an extremely unhealthy tendency within Resistance to attribute pseudo-psychoanalytical explanations for comrades raising differences, ie that they are “demoralised” or that they “lack confidence” in building our organisation.

This last, for instance, was an argument used at this year’s National Conference against proposals put forward by Luke. Aside from being highly patronising and subjective, this practice diverts attention from the actual content of the discussion and towards finding fault with the individual comrades raising different perspectives. As such, it is enormously detrimental to a real culture of vibrant, democratic debate within Resistance.

Unfortunately this is the usual level of discourse when people raise principled political differences within Resistance today. The message sent is basically that there is no room for your ideas in this organisation. The result: “dissenters” usually end up either biting their tongues, leaving the organisation or becoming seen as little more than nuisance factors in the pressing task of building the revolutionary youth organisation. In my opinion, this is extremely harmful, and serves only to unnecessarily narrow the organisation.

Radicalisation and organisation

It could be argued that this is the price we have to pay for attaining the highly homogenous organisation that we undoubtedly are today. This may well be true. The question nevertheless remains as to whether such an ideologically narrow revolutionary youth organisation is what is needed in the current situation.

There are situations where a high degree of homogeneity may be necessary: in a heightened revolutionary situation, for example, or where there is intense state repression of the left. But, in Australia in 2003, we are not in such a situation. The situation in which we find ourselves, at least as far as prospects for a revolutionary youth organisation go, is marked by several characteristics.
At present there is a large layer of young people undergoing a radicalisation in their consciousness. At the last NC, a comrade asked, in all genuineness, “What youth radicalisation?”

Frankly, if you can’t see the radicalisation you haven’t got your eyes open. It’s happening all around us; it explains things like the Michael Moore phenomenon, or the exponential increase in the sales of left-wing books (even Simon & Schuster, the largest book publisher in the world, is getting in on the act); it explains why the Greens got 60 per cent of the student vote at the last federal election due to their general social justice politics.

Possibly the reason why comrades seem to be somewhat myopic when it comes to this radicalisation is that it has not been, and will not be, a simple repetition of the 1960s radicalisation. There are a number of reasons for this. When the 1960s radicalisation drew to a close it was not superseded by a return to the stifling conservatism of the 1950s.

Far from it, instead it was replaced in the 1980s and 1990s by “Generation X” — marked by a general cynicism, both towards the current system and to the possibility of any real alternatives to this system. The current radicalisation is a reaction to that status quo.

So the radicalisation is not simply about rejecting the ability of capitalism to provide for the Earth’s population — that, in many ways, is its starting point. Rather, the radicalisation comes in the form of a realisation that it is both possible and worthwhile to fight for a different world. This is why the slogan “Another world is possible”, which at first glance sounds a little tame, has had such resonance around the globe.

But a problem arises: if there is such a radicalisation in this country, why is it that the established youth and student left has shrunk in the last few years, with the exception of Socialist Alternative’s small growth? In fact, young people have shown a much increased willingness to take political action. This isn’t an “armchair radicalisation”. S11, M1 and the BNB protests are proof of this. But they remain as yet intermittent outbursts, there has so far been no ongoing political expression, either in the form of a movement or an organisation, corresponding to the extent of the radicalisation.

This points to only one conclusion: the problem isn’t with the radicalisation, it is with the established left. Resistance cannot distance itself from this fact either, as we have experienced precisely the same shrinkage. Nor should we look at Socialist Alternative in wonder at having bucked the trend. The main way they have been able to register their modest growth is by subordinating all political tasks, including seriously building movements, to profile and recruiting. In the process they have turned off a lot more activists than they have joined, and are beset by a number of internal problems.

Unity and relating to the student left

In general, the established left (by this I mean Resistance, the ISO, SAlt and the various autonomist layers) is still perceived by the radicalising sections of young people to be hopelessly divided, and to be caught up with sectarian feuds or the sanctity of their own programatic details.

This comes at a time when the non-Labor left is marked by an almost unprecedented amount of common ground. Practically all of the most conservative members of the student left have dropped out of activism, and there is a high level of unanimity on the need to build movements against war, against the detention of refugees and against globalisation as part of a broader anti-capitalist struggle. That is not to gloss over the differences, but this fact remains clear.

There have been some great examples of constructive collaboration among the student left. Newcastle Uni is a fantastic example, and we should be proud of the role we have played there. So too, is the Sydney Uni RAC of second semester last year, and the present revival of the Activist Left on that campus, which looks to be a very healthy development.

This kind of constructive relationship with the left, and with new layers of radicalising young people, is the kind of practice we should be generalising, rather than the “hostile engagement” advocated by Nikki U at the beginning of 2002. This should be seen as contributing to the process of left youth unity, the need for which is universally recognised in Resistance.

This process is parallel to the unity process of the “adults” (in heavily sarcastic quotation marks). It has some similarities, but also major differences, and is working on a completely different terrain. It is for this reason that I disagree with the decision for Resistance to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance, a decision which I think should be revisited. Affiliation muddies the waters between the two processes, and by officially tying Resistance to the Alliance, unnecessarily prescribes the path forward for our organisation to achieve youth unity, restricting it to being the youth wing of the Socialist Alliance in the same way that Resistance is currently the youth wing of the DSP.

In my opinion, our perspective for youth unity suffers from a number of limitations. Firstly, it is very SAlt-centric, concentrating almost exclusively on trying to convince Socialist Alternative members that fusion between our two organisations would be a good thing. We thus tend to ignore other important trends on the student left, such as the large number of former ISO members, as well as current ISO members, and even the good, non-sectarian autonomists, not to mention the huge numbers not in the established left.

Secondly, there seems to be a general contradiction in concretely advocating left unity (as opposed to the vague support which everyone on the left gives it) and continuing to build Resistance in its current form, as a highly homogenous organisation with an all-embracing “correct program” and a, to varying degrees, “hostile engagement” with the rest of the left.

This practice is inimical to unity of the youth and student left. It only results in greater antagonism between existing left currents, which can not be overcome by the occasional appeal for unity. It comes out in our hugely contradictory way of relating to people new to the left: on the one hand we say that the differences among the left are minimal and we need unity; on the other hand, we say that you should join us and not SAlt because they have a fucked position on the nature of the Cuban state, or the precise nature of the ALP, etc. It also pervades the day-to-day culture in Resistance branches — sometimes it can feel like Resistance Centres are forums for “Who hates the student left the most?” competitions.

The “leap of faith”

So, in addition to having a constructive, positive relationship with the rest of the left, we also need to revise how we define our organisation in relation to the left and to left unity. To steal from Gandhi, we have to “be the change” we want to see in the youth and student left. This change amounts to a cultural shift — getting away from the bad blood that has particularly marked the established left on campus politics.

Whether we like it or not, Resistance is perceived to have been part of this. I don’t think anyone can deny that we have made sectarian errors in the past, or on occasions prioritised trying to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the left over looking after the general health of the movements.

Despite this past record, there are very good prospects for unity on the left owing to the groundswell of youth radicalisation and the increasingly congruous campus non-Labor left. The success of dialogue processes such as the Sydney Social Forum and the Sydney Activist Fair are proof of this, they have not descended into meaningless shit-fights. There is an increasing realisation that our commonalities are much more important than our differences.

In my opinion, Resistance should be in the frontline of this process. Rather than waiting for Socialist Alternative to miraculously make a 180-degree turn on the question of left unity, we should be taking the initiative. We should be leading by example, and that extends into the areas of how we profile ourselves, how we relate to those who are new and not-so-new to the left and how we internally function as an organisation.

The process desired is following on the same lines as that taken by Scottish Militant Labour in the mid-1990s, when they transformed themselves into a tendency within the SSP, or as that currently undertaken by the LCR in their project for a party of the anti-capitalist left. On a strictly youth level, there are also parallels with Italy’s Giovani Comunisti, and the work they are doing in the Disobbedienti movement and the campaign around precarietá (precariousness).

Of course, there are differences between the situation in Australia and that in the countries mentioned, and slavishly copying their models is certainly no guarantee of mirroring their success. But there are lessons from those experiences that are generally applicable in First World countries today. The main one is that internal transformation and external regroupment of revolutionary groups are not just complementary processes; they are inextricably intertwined and to have one is a precondition of having the other.

We should take a leap of faith with this. It involves taking a big risk, it involves wading into uncharted waters, where we won’t be able to fall back on the old routines on which we have relied for the last 30 years. In a way, it means relearning the alphabet. There may be downsides in this process, there may be stumbling blocks, but, if we truly want to qualitatively break out of the relative insignificance in which we now find ourselves, it is something which we have no choice but to do, and the potential rewards are far greater than any possible negative aspects.

Discussion

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