contribution to the commune’s debate on organisation

by Allan Armstrong

From the range of contributions I have read in The Commune, and the comrades I have met in The Commune, membership seems to include anarchists, libertarian Marxists, dissident Trotskyists, republican communists and trade union militants (particularly those concerned with workers’ self management). There may well be other views I have not identified.


The first question, many on the Left must be asking is – how on earth is this possible?

One answer I would give is that, whenever major class struggles arise, those throwing themselves into direct organising and support tend to come from this wide political range. I’ll give an example. I was chair of the very first Anti-Poll Tax Federation, which was formed in Lothian. It had monthly delegate meetings of up to 150. Whilst many delegates were not in any political organisation, there were also a lot of active members from Militant, the Labour Left, the SNP Left, SWP (for a time!), republican socialists, Direct Action Movement and Class War. Yes, I had to chair those meetings for a couple of years!

There were certainly tensions at times, but these were mitigated by the experience of being involved in shared actions – occupations of sheriff officers, sit-ins of houses threatened with poindings (valuation of goods before a warrant sale), etc. Real debates occurred over whether, i) to actively pursue non-registration as a tactic (initially opposed by Militant, fearful that it would also lead to electoral non-registration, but widely adopted anyhow in Scotland), ii) to put forward independent anti-poll tax candidates (opposed by Militant, SWP and the anarchists, but supported by republican socialists and independents) and, of course, iii) the role of Tommy Sheridan in the Trafalgar Square Riots (I had to step down from the chair to debate head-to-head against Sheridan. It was the enormity of what he had done, in saying that he would give names to the police, and certainly not my eloquence, which led to his actions being condemned by 76 to 73 votes!).

Despite all these debates, our Federation (and others) held together and contributed to the biggest defeat that Thatcher experienced (well perhaps, outside of the `Six Counties’). As the capitalist crisis deepens, there are going to be many more struggles, which will bring together a similar range of people. The idea that anarchists/socialists/communists should remain quite separate because of prior political positions, usually relating to long-past historical events, is not very helpful.

What is helpful is if people from different political traditions get involved in debates in a non-sectarian manner, and link their particular political convictions with the issues our class currently faces. This appears to me to be what the commune has achieved very successfully so far.

Nor, are the contributions to the commune on, for example, particular strikes, opposing fascism, supporting migrant workers, the bland cheering on we usually get in Socialist Worker. Problems are confronted and real debates take place. There are also excellent longer, thought-provoking pieces like Sheila Cohen’s workers councils – the red mole of revolution. This is an excellent combination.

Now, as in the case of the Anti-Poll Tax Federations in Scotland, more controversial issues are going to raise their heads – the current one seems to be whether or not to participate in the General Election and, if so, who to vote for. I don’t think that anyone who writes for the commune believes there is going to be any particular governmental outcome from this election that will be other than horrific for our class. Therefore, the key job is how do we organise to more effectively combat their attacks.

I happen to believe there is a case for limited and principled electoral intervention, but I have more in common with those anarchists who reject such activity, than with those who believe in the electoral road to socialism/communism. The question is, whether, because I will be conducting some limited electoral work, those who reject this tactic, can still work with me and others over, for example, active support for worker’s strikes, anti-cuts demonstrations and occupations, involvement in militant anti-fascism, etc.? For my part, and from my long experience, I don’t have any problems with working with others with whom I may disagree, but who are actively supporting workers in struggle.

As a result of meeting people from The Commune, I have become involved in the Alberto Durango Defence Campaign. The Edinburgh picket of the Union Bank of Switzerland involved people from the IWW, SSP and even someone from the Right to Work Campaign (SWP front). However, a real debate is taking place in the wider campaign over whether migrant workers experiencing attempts to marginalise and active sabotage their efforts by trade union officials should organise independently. For example, the possibility of joining and forming a branch of the IWW has been suggested.

This offers a challenge to two old doctrinaire stances – those official and dissident communists (largely Trotskyists) who say you should never leave the organisations of labour; and those anarcho-syndicalists who want to maintain their union as an anarchist organisation, as much as any official and dissident communists want to maintain their own `parties’.

The fact that discussions over dual membership with TUC-affiliated unions have taken place in the IWW (and dual membership with ICTU-affiliated unions is part of the agreed set-up in the Independent Workers Union in Ireland), shows that by applying some independent thought and tactical acumen it may be possible to overcome previous doctrinaire stances, in a manner which might help our class. This is a key role I see for The Commune.

In terms of communist organisation, The Commune appears to me to be at the stage of an early political organisation with several precedents – that of a corresponding society. It informs members, supporters and a wider group of people who are interested in key struggles, it provides a debating forum, and links its activities with an openly declared commitment to a communist future. Furthermore, as in the best of all communist organisations, its ambitions are international.

The current debate on organisation appears to be on how do we go beyond the present communist correspondence stage. I would argue that the apparent debate, on whether to party or not to party, is not addressing the situation we actually face. Something that has been overlooked in the discussions is the political platform of our communist network on the back page of The Commune. This is quite an advanced political statement, much more so than the What We Stand For statements of organisations like say the SWP.

This statement already goes considerably beyond what would be required for a corresponding society. Yet a wide range of people have been able to join up to The Commune, myself included, on the basis of this principled political statement. Nobody has suggested amending it.

It would seem to me therefore, that we already have the political basis for a move forward towards a communist league. What is the difference between this and a corresponding society? Instead of The Commune’s activity just representing the sum of the activities of its individual members, there would be active discussion on what joint activities we should be involved, and how best to promote and coordinate these. There would be more structured debate on what we mean by communism. The purpose behind this debate should be to lift all members to a new higher level of understanding, and not just the tired old sectarian debates about which organisation (or even individual) already has the perfectly formed position.

Sections 3 and 4 of the platform already suggests the outlines of how a communist league should be organised, although I acknowledge that maybe ‘the devil is in the detail’!

Just one last point, any comrade who supports such an advanced platform in these days of adversity, deserves to be treated with respect. I am quite hopeful that, despite the difficult times we currently face, we are already seeing the beginnings of a real alternative. I would very much like The Commune to be part of that wider alternative. If there is something that contributes to such a feeling more than anything else, it is a deeply shared sense of comradeship. This means seeing openly acknowledged differences as a chance to raise the level of debate, and potentially produce higher levels of unity in the near future.

7 thoughts on “contribution to the commune’s debate on organisation

  1. The platform of the commune and the commune organisationally is not what Allan seems to mean by a corresponding society. It is not a mere sum of individuals sharing information or simply a debating forum, although there is a high level of debate in the organisation.

    The platform states how the commune organises. It functions on the basis of Consensus or if necessary majority votes. This implies colective discipline.There are aggregate meetings were members from various local groups decide either through consensus or majority vote policy for the commune as a whole.

    In between aggregates there will be on line voting. This was decided at an aggregate. This is collective decision making with practical consequences. However because we have grown so quickly and debating forums have been so successful, narrow organisational issues or organisational nuts and bolts have been negleted. We have now agreed collectively to have officer positions. Democratically elected officers such as secretary,treasurer and hopefully chair to help ensure democratic decision are caried out and the routine functioning of the organisation is maintained. The move to annual conference with motions and elections will consolidate this collective organisation.

    Whether this constitutes Allans communist league is another question. Whats in a name? Now I might have got the wrong impression, but what Allan means by a communist League might involve a more minimum programme approach or a wider alternative as he puts it. Allans stress is on joint activity with people of different views rather than say a communist platform or a communist plaralism.

    People with vastly different views are able to engage in joint work in Trade unions,soviets,councils of action, anti war protests and so on. But activity itself is not enough. Without communist perspectives activity will come to nothing or go down a dead end or fall short of superceding capitalism. As the communist manifesto put it:communists bring to the front the common international interests of the working class and bring a clearer understanding of the line of march or the ultimate goal.That is not a minimum programme.

    Allan says he stands for a limited principled electoral intervention. What does he mean by this and on what platform are the two members of the RCN standing for election as candidates of the SSP in the general election?

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  2. I am deeply interested in this area of debate. I support Allan’s proposals and see little wrong with a broad pluralist approach as long as there is a clear commitment to a bottom up communist platform.
    I would like to know a little more about the “Democratically elected officers…to help ensure democratic decision are carried out”. I would prefer not to be pedantic concerning the word representative versus delegate but would like some clarification about their role and conditions of office. Are they elected for a term to carry out their role or are they instantly re-callable and there to carry out decisions the group makes on a rolling basis?
    I appreciate that at this size of organisation the question is very much splitting hairs, however it is key to the way the group develops. A commitment to a bottom up approach demands that members should not hand over their responsibility for decision making and, as I said earlier, I would be deeply interested in the choice the Commune has made in this matter.

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  3. my understanding is that Allan has raised the issue of organisation for discussion. He has not made any specific organisational proposals to support. Another comrade has already asked what he means by Communist league. No doubt he will give us some detail in relation to the commune and our circumstances today.

    What does the phrase broad approach mean? does it mean organisation unity on the basis of our platform or some wider organisational unity? Does the word broad denote some kind of organiational unity betwen reformists and Revolutionaries? Does the word broad describe an organisational unity on the basis of a minimum programme?

    The point about recall is a good one. That is the communist tradition. so Presumably we do need some simple rule to enable a certain percentage of the membership to recall a representative or replace them between annual elections if that is necessary. A certain number of comrades would trigger a special meeting to elect someone else.

    The members have decision making powers in local meetings and aggregates which are simply gatherings of the membership. If we have an annual conference then that will be another forum for membership decision making.

    The members would not hand over responsibility for dues to a treasurer. The members would not hand over responsibility for chairing meeings or acting as secretary. They do not have these responsibilities. These duties or this work is carried out currently by unelected comrades. usually comrades who are overstreached with other responsiblities and political work already.

    As a member I do not draw up the agenda. i am consulted via e mail like other members, but who makes the final decision on the agenda? I would have liked the general elecion and the national question on the agenda at the last aggregate but it was not accepted on the agenda. i think a couple of comrades make the decisions on the agenda in a vague process of consultation which is not transparent. There has been no on line vote on the agenda for an aggregate. Comrades can always turn up and put an issue before the aggregate, but could fall foul of lack of notice objections.

    It is better to have someone elected and accountable for chair, secretary treasurer or newspaper organiser, and it would also result in a more efective organisation since all the responsibilities would not fall on a few shoulders.Another danger is that the comrades who have lots of organisational roles could fall into the trap of identifying their views with the orgainsation. Its better to have a democratic transparency.

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  4. Apologies for my delay in replying. I have been away in Wales for the last ten days and have just returned.

    First, let me make clear that I have not put forward any particular organisational proposals. The organisational question was one of two put forward by The Commune for one of the sessions at the second RCN/The Commune day school in May. (The RCN asked for ‘Internationalism from below’ to be put on the agenda, so Barry will have his wish that the ‘National Question’ be addressed.

    I was asked by David Broder to make some comments on the ongoing organisational debate from the perspective of a new member in Scotland, who also happens to be in the Republican Communist Network. My response is a personal one, and is made more in the way of an observation.

    Barry makes it clear that he thinks that the level of organisational integration of The Commune is considerable greater than I had appreciated. I spoke at one London meeting last July and attended a day school-type event, with three speakers presenting papers, on February 14th, also in London. In addition, I was one of the organisers of the joint RCN/The Commune day school on January 16th in Edinburgh. Obviously I have also read issues of ‘the commune’. It is these experiences, and the very wide variety of views, albeit still within a communist perspective, I came across, which led me to conclude that The Commune resembles early communist corresponding societies. My impressions may indeed be limited, and my conclusions wrong. In particular, I have not been able to attend any aggregates.

    If ‘The Commune’ is already at a stage which Barry argues, way beyond a corresponding society, I stand corrected. I did make the observation that the platform is considerably in advance of that of a corresponding society, suggesting perhaps it was already more like a communist league. Such a league would come to agreement over shared perspectives and activities. I also clearly stated that I thought the platform of The Commune was very good indeed.

    When I drew from my experiences in various united front organisations, especially the Anti-Poll Tax Campaigns, I was not suggesting that the purpose of The Commune is to unite all those participating in such campaigns into one big communist organisation. That is about as likely as the CPGB’s attempt to build a united confessional party of self-decalred Marxists from the SPGB to the Sparts! (with the Stalin Friendship Society thrown in!), or the Christian ecumenicists trying to unite everyone from the Pope to Paisley (with the Lord’s Army thrown in!).

    What I was trying to show was that the old ‘confessional’ boundaries between Trotskyists, anarchists, libertarian marxists, etc., were not particularly helpful when trying to develop a politics which can address the burning issues currently facing our class. I feel that meaningful attempts to further develop the communist platform, and relate it successfully to those in struggle, will come about as a result of contributions from a wide variety of perspectives and traditions, and not by the triumph of one already existing tendency over the others. If the perfect tendency already existed our class would surely be in a far better position than it now finds itself in!

    I hope this clarifies matters.

    Allan Armstrong. 18.4.10

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  5. Allan

    Thank you for your delayed response. It does help to clarify things. But I would appreciate it if you would responde to the question i raised, but to which you have not yet responded. What do you mean by principled Electoral Intervention. and On what politcal platform are the Two RCN members standing in the Election as SSP candidates?

    Comradely

    Barry

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  6. Barry,

    The article that myself and Angela have sent in for the new issue of the Commune may answer your question on what the political platform of the two of us is as SSP candidates in the general election. However, my three key platform points are:

    1) Opposition to all public spending cuts, instead arguing to people that the bankers and the rich can pay for the economic crisis they are responsible for: in essence, tax the rich;

    2) Withdrawal of troops from Afghanisan;

    3) Representatives on a worker’s wage, pledging to take only £25,000 of an MP’s wage if elected.

    My platform also contains other issues such as free public transport and opposition to Donald Trump’s elite golf course development.

    I hope that helps,

    Ewan Robertson

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