Presentation of Organisational Principles

From our inaugural meeting on 14th December

How did we get here?

Britain’s communist left has long been in decline, with its few organised remnants splintered into fractious and marginalised groupuscules. The dramatic implosion of the Socialist Workers Party in 2013 seemed to cement the British left’s retreat from Leninism. Many of us then rushed into the social movements, embracing anarchism, autonomism, horizontalism – the party-form was dead! These projects produced plenty of valuable achievements and experiments, but we soon discovered that these networks had their limits, and that “non-hierarchical” organising could become just as dogmatic and undemocratic as the forms it sought to displace.

Then Corbyn happened, and everything changed. Frustrated by the limits of extra-parliamentary networks, we all rushed back to Labour. It was obvious that the party’s institutions and existing democratic structures weren’t fit for our purposes and that we needed our own organisations. So we set up Momentum.

Perhaps Momentum never had a chance. Set up by a confused, inexperienced, and disunited new left, suffering immense pressures from within and without, and constantly facing down one crisis after another, it was never able to cohere or to define its own politics clearly. Its interim delegate structures became sites of bitter and often intractable contention, and were eventually abolished in an extremely controversial process. Many held high hopes for the promised new solution of ‘digital democracy’, but the results were, to say the least, disappointing.

Although Momentum has been invaluable at mobilising people to go door-knocking, it has become clear that this is not enough. Its present structures not only fail to give members a meaningful voice, but they don’t even allow it to function effectively as an organisation – relationships between local groups and the national office have completely broken down, the organisation has no way to define its own politics or to resolve its internal differences, and it’s barely capable of producing any kind of coherent long-term strategy.

It’s clear we need a new model.
We’ve done a great deal of research, discussion, thinking on these questions over the past year, and while we don’t pretend to have all of the answers or some perfect blueprint, we think we’ve found at least the starting point. I’m going to try and summarise some of our key conclusions and identify what we think are some of the most important issues where a lot of projects have made mistakes. Hopefully we can get a broad agreement about the kind of organisation that we want, and then a working group can draft more detailed proposals for discussion and formal ratification.

Obviously it’s vital that we learn the lessons of the New Left, that we understand the critiques of the left’s own practice and culture that were advanced by the women’s movement, by anti-colonial and anti-racist activists, and by the wider social movements and the libertarian left. But it’s important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that we re-examine the classics. That means looking back at figures like Gramsci, like Lenin, not with an eye towards uncritically replicating some exact model from a century ago, but recognising that we need to understand why they chose to organise the way they did, what was their strategic logic, their underlying principles, and how can those lessons be applied today.

What’s wrong with a loose network? 
Most of Labour’s socialist left has so far been organising through informal personal networks, but this cannot be the answer. Most of us are already familiar with a lot of the issues that can come up in supposedly “non-hierarchical” networked organising, and much has already been written about the “tyranny of structurelessness” – so I’m going to focus on the specific issues it presents within the Labour Party.

The Labour Party is an entrenched, bureaucratic, electoral machine. It is certainly not the kind of modern, social movement-oriented socialist vehicle we would like – and its structure, its scale, its institutional logics make it very difficult to redirect. When our networks have come up against these entrenched institutions, the movement has been disciplined to Labour’s conservative electoral logics. We need to reverse this. The institutions and the machinery need to be disciplined to a radical socialist political strategy.

Even when principled, determined people move from the movement into the heights of the institutions, it’s not enough. They are immediately faced with very different concerns and priorities, and suffer immense pressures from every direction, so start to move apart from the movement. Whether in the media, the bureaucracy, or in political positions, we’ve had no way to hold our movement’s representatives to account. Even well-meaning people unwittingly become gatekeepers and start to reproduce the logics and behaviours of those they once denounced. And with little transparency across these institutions, and few collective forums for communication or coordination, we easily fall prey to confusion, paranoia, and sectarianism.

So we need formal organisation and democratic accountability.

What do we mean by democracy? 
We talk a lot about democracy on the left, but often in purely moralistic terms – as an inherently valuable end-in-itself. Of course this is true, but given that hardly anyone disagrees, and that there are a million different forms of democracy, this doesn’t necessarily get us very far. But democracy is more than an end-in-itself – when you’re trying to build a mass socialist movement, democracy is a vitally important strategic necessity. Democracy is a tool and democracy is a weapon.

We want to smash capitalism, to radically democratise the state, and to totally transform our society. That’s a big task. If we’re not just play-acting, we need to be serious, we need to be organised, we need the entire movement working together, and we need to use every resource at our disposal to its maximum effect. This means we need serious, joined-up, long-term strategy.

At the moment, our intellectual resources are scattered. We have Marxist intellectuals in one corner, talking in abstract terms about capitalism and the state, we have the policy wonks in another poring over the minutiae of policy details, we have the activists and campaigners somewhere else, and the bureaucrats and politicians making decisions often very insulated from these ideas and expertise. If we want an effective strategy, we need all of this to be linked up, we need real unity of theory and practice.

Just in this room, there is an absolute wealth of information, experience and expertise. A hundred and fifty activists and intellectuals, with knowledge of your communities, your workplaces, your unions, your professional and academic expertise, your experience in the party or in social struggles, your historical memory, and so much more. All of this needs to feed into our strategic perspective. But there is no extant democratic institution in or around the Labour party which can allow this collective intelligence to be harnessed.

And we need to build political unity.

Where we have been organised formally, we’ve been trapped either in narrow-single issue campaigns, unable to coordinate on the wider issues, or in pluralistic broad-church organisations, where there’s no clear agreement on the underlying politics or the long-term goals, making coordinated long-term strategy impossible. As the old slogan goes, “first clarity, then unity!”.So we need to start from clarity about our underlying political principles and long-term objectives – which we tried to summarise in our foundational principles – and we need to have the forums to discuss our ideas, to resolve our differences, to be able to move together collectively. We can’t allow our disagreements to become bottled up, we have to be able to build unity through dialogue. And we have to try and mitigate the stark binaries many groups face, between activists and bureaucrats or leadership and membership.

Anyone who’s been involved in social or political struggles, knows there are times when you do need real discipline, unity, and commitment. But these can’t just be decreed from above. Too often within Labour, it’s assumed that the leadership can make a decision, and the membership can be expected to follow – or face intimidation and administrative suppression. Real unity needs to be built – through dialogue and through democracy. This is a very practical point as well. If the members have fed into the strategy, discussed it, scrutinised it, consented to it – for one thing it will be a better strategy, but it will also be their strategy. If you understand the strategy and feel a sense of ownership over it, you’ll be able to fight all the harder for it.

So where does this get us? 
We need forms of democracy that focus on dialogue and deliberation. It’s no good just having a ballot of members if the members have no forums to speak to each other, no platforms to share ideas. Members and local groups need to be able to scrutinise and to feed into the organisation’s overall strategy. We need to have spirited, comradely debate on all of the relevant issues. We need to identify the places where our differences are insignificant, so we can move past them, and to identify where our differences do matter, so we can debate them and resolve them. We need to be able to actively build towards consensus, and avoid any build-up of deep internal tensions.Yes, there need to be formal hierarchical systems – to avoid the tyranny of structurelessness – but those systems need to be accountable, and the dialogue, information, accountability needs to flow in both directions. And we need some centralisation, so the group can make decisions together and so we can discipline ourselves to a collective strategy. But the national structures need to be transparent and to face meaningful accountability to the other parts of the organisation.

But to make all of this work, the organisation needs to be actively focused towards its membership, and its membership need to be active. We don’t want a passive, demobilised membership that’s just there to pay subscription fees and turn out to vote. Every member needs to be actively drawn into the life of the organisation. We all need to be involved not just in the practical work, but in the strategic and intellectual work. Political education, discussion, skill-sharing, all need to be prioritised, so we can develop our political project together. The organisation needs to be a machine for turning every activist into an intellectual, and every intellectual into an activist.

We didn’t come to this meeting with a detailed constitution for you all to sign up to, or pretending to have all of the answers already fully developed, but we hope this provides the starting point from which we can begin to build an organisation, and that in future meetings we can iron out the precise structures and details collectively.