Thursday, 22 March 2007
The New Vanguard pt 2
The last post was about how radical democracy is conductive to both increased party unity and political/tactical effectiveness. Here, I will use the organizational structures of the SSP as a model on which a new vanguard party can be built, while also discussing the challenges posed by the attempt to establish a united, radical party of the left that brings together a variety of often contradictory traditions of thought. The constitution of the SSP is available here, should you wish to go through it.
So, how does the SSP work? Well, quite unsurprisingly, the SSP's sovereign body is the National Conference, which meets annually. Conference is the only body that can amend the constitution of the party, while it is also responsible for developing party policy and laying down basic strategic guidelines. It is composed of delegates elected directly at branch level, as well as delegates from platforms, affiliated unions party networks and Scottish Socialist Youth (which have to be party members). The Conference agenda is composed of motions tabled by branches, the Executive Committee and the National Council, as well as from platforms, networks, affiliates and the SSY. The agenda is prepared and structured by the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) which is elected annually at Conference in order to make all necessary arrangements for the following one. Executive Committee members cannot be part of CAC. This dynamic ensures that Conference does not become a well rehearsed carnival of acclamatory function. In traditional socialist groups/parties, conference agenda is prepared by the Central Committee (which is organized by the executive body, whatever its name may be) and most usually is little more than a series of Committee resolutions which are presented to the delegates for ratification. The key difference is that in the SSP, motions have been developed at branch level, with the participation of grassroots activists and are therefore the product of the political experience of the whole party, while in ortho-Bolshevik organizations, policies are presented for ratification to the delegates from above, much in the way that bourgeois governments conduct "yes or no" referenda.
On to the National Council (NC) and the Executive Committee (EC) now. The NC is the body that governs the party in between Conferences. In that manner, it can be said that it is analogous to the Central Committee of other groups. But similarities end here. Unlike its more traditional counterpart, the NC is not central. Instead of being elected by delegates at Conference, it is composed of branch delegates that are elected by branches annually (and are of course recallable at any time). Apart from ensuring that all regions of Scotland are adequately represented, this structure also eliminates an unnecessary mediation, the election of the electors. It is also important to note that all members of the SSP can freely attend National Council meetings and participate at debates (without of course having voting rights). The executive is also part of the NC and can submit motions to it. The EC does not however dominate the NC as branches, networks and the SSY can all submit motions (and amendments) which are included in the agenda.
As you have probably guessed by now, the EC is the SSPs "politburo". It is defined by the constitution as the body that "provides political and strategic leadership and is responsible for the day to day running of the party". Again, the key point in which the EC differs from the executives of other organizations is the way it is elected. All members of the EC are elected either as such, or as National Office-bearers that are automatically on it, at Conference. At other groups of past and present, the executive was elected by the Central Committee meaning that there were a total of three mediations from a branch member to the executive: branch member => conference delegate=> central commitee=> executive. The SSP has managed to eliminate one part of this sequence bring the leadership closer to the base. Further, the EC is accountable to the NC for all its actions and is obliged to refer all major decisions to it. Given that the NC is composed by branch delegates, the leadership is almost directly accountable to the base membership.
Finally, the SSP recognizes the right of its members to establish internal platforms/tendencies and welcomes diversity of opinion as "a healthy source of debate and new ideas". I would also add that it strengthens the party's unity as it reduces the possibility of members feeling alienated and marginalized because of their views.
Of course, we, as all new, pluralist vanguards must take care not to become a mere coalition of groups. Platforms should not become parties within the party. Platform members should adopt the mentality that the vehicle for socialism is their party, not their platform, and therefore, their ultimate allegiance should lie with the party. The sectarianism that plagues the left is not automatically dispelled if a sect joins a unity-project. It is quite possible that the sect will join with opportunist intentions, aiming to either rise to a position of control within the party or to simply use it as a front of recruitment. We faced this problem in the SSP and it almost cost the party its life. The SWP and CWI platforms, both of course more loyal to their central committees based in London rather than the SSP, would often act divisively within the party (one of the most prominent examples being them breaking off from the SSP bloc to join their non-SSP comrades during the G8 protests in 2005) and, after understanding that they had no hope of turning it into a mirror image of themselves, decided to help Tommy "ban-airguns" Sheridan - whom they both hate as much as they hate each other - split it. Gregor Gall had already pointed out the tendency of the SWP to act in an ultra-sectarian manner more than a year before the split.
The key lesson of the split is that while the New Vanguard must respect and welcome differences in thought while also providing its members with as much opportunity to act on their own terms and enrich their own experience as possible, it is also necessary to establish a culture of unity and develop measures to protect the party from the sectarians who would seek to undermine it. After all, democracy has no meaning without a degree of centralism; democracy - binding decisions = discussion. The minority should accept the sovereignty of the majority, without this meaning that the minority should be disrespected and/or marginalized.
Concretely, this means that a party should be prepared to take disciplinary measures, up to and including dissolving and/or expelling internal groups that undermine its unity. For the SSP particularly, it means that the SWP and CWI can never be allowed to rejoin the SSP as such, even though individual members that have left them should always be welcome.