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.
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.