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Realignment in the Irish socialist movement?
07 January 2014
Recent divisions in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and the collapse of the United Left Alliance and household charge campaign in Ireland have been followed by a wave of splits and resignations from various socialist groups.
Below we carry a statement from six former members of the Socialist Party. Although the statement repudiates the whole tradition of Trotskyism on the basis of their experience in the Socialist Party, it also involves a break from the electoralism and reformism that has dominated the Irish socialist movement and to that extent opens up the possibility of at least the beginnings of a principled regroupment of socialists..
Below we carry the former SP members statement and a response from John McAnulty. Further comments and contributions would be welcome.
Socialist Party Resignation Statement
First posted on Thursday December 19th, 2013 at; http://spiritofcontradiction.eu/guest-author/2013/12/19/socialist-party-resignation-statement
This statement has been drawn up by the following recently resigned members of the Socialist Party: Andrew Phelan, Megan ni Ghabhlain, Richard O’Hara, Pamela Rochford, Stephanie O’Shea and Jimmy Dignam.
After our recent resignations it became clear to us that whilst differing on some issues there were some core reasons behind all our resignations. We hope that this document can be a contribution to the debates currently taking place around what kind of mass Party is needed to rebuild the workers’ movement and play a crucial role in overthrowing Capitalism. While not claiming to have the answer to this question we feel it is important for us to offer our criticisms not just of the Socialist Party or the Committee for a Workers International but Trotskyism (1) as an ideology.
We are aware that the political movement that has been defined as Trotskyism has a wide and varied history, however for the purposes of this statement we will discuss mainly Trotskyism as practised by the dominant Trotskyist parties in contemporary polity and especially the version of Trotskyism dominant in the Irish and British left; that is the Committee for a Workers’ International, the Internatonal Socialists and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party. These parties and international groupings share tendencies discussed below that we believe point to serious issues with the ideology of contemporary British and Irish Trotskyism itself.
The reality is that none of us can stand over calling ourselves Trotskyists. Furthermore we feel that Trotskyism by its nature can in many instances act as an obstacle to the development of a truly mass and democratic workers’ party. This is not to malign the contribution of many individual Socialists who are members of Trotskyist parties but to recognise the inherent sectarian nature of these parties and the damage they can do to the wider movement.
In this statement we would like to raise tactical differences that emerged between ourselves and the SP but more importantly criticisms of Trotskyism that seem to permeate such organisations to varying degrees.
Democratic Deficit and Dogmatic Approach
It is an open question whether the anti-democratic nature of the SP and other Trotskyist organisations are a direct result of the dogmatic approach that they implement or if it is the other way around. Regardless, one cannot exist without the other and it is important that we clarify what we mean by both. What do we mean by dogmatic? It is the assertive and uncompromising belief that the methods and programme adopted by the Party are the “one and only true way”; that the party’s tried and tested methods and its doctrine are truly revolutionary and any deviation poses a risk to the Party by watering down its political programme. This will generally be reflected in an authoritarian and emphatic manner by the Party leadership. If any questions are raised around democracy they will be dismissed as being unrelated and irrelevant to the broader class struggle.
This is not to diminish the importance of leadership within Socialist organisations, but merely highlight that when a leadership is not open to critique and that this closed leadership is accompanied by a political culture that discourages critical thought it is, in the long run, detrimental to the organisation as a whole. In our experience this culture allows little room for genuine debate in relation to important political questions.
Our collective experience as members of the Socialist Party (CWI) points to many instances of this political culture and structure. In the Socialist Party, for example, if a member raises differences they will generally be invited to attend a meeting with a party full-timer where the party line will be vigorously and unyieldingly explained to them. As a result, agreement to the Party’s overall doctrine is an integral part of one’s membership and acceptance within the organization. This makes it very difficult to exist within the organization whilst holding differences of opinion on certain matters.
This dogmatic and undialectical approach is used across many other organisational and political practices across the SP. This culture exists partly because the wider membership is not involved in important decision making in any critical matter. This is further contributed to by a certain ‘funnelling downwards of theory’ whereby important ideas are dissected by the leadership and members are given the ‘correct’ analysis. There is little emphasis put on members developing themselves theoretically and in a genuine critical manner(2).
Another important aspect to this inhibiting atmosphere is the time constraints placed on members by the frenetic activity expected of them. In many circumstances this activity can be ‘manufactured’ and can bear little relevance to the overall goal of Socialism. There is no reflection as to the purpose and usefulness of this constant and frenetic activity. This leads to the Party’s inability to be able to adapt to changes in mood.
A division of labour also exists within the SP between the leadership and membership. The leadership makes the critical decisions on policy, theory and direction whilst the membership for the main part is expected to sell the paper door-to-door, pursue new contacts and look after day-to-day organisational tasks. For any organisation looking to be able to be an influencing factor in society but also to be capable of incremently growing in size, it cannot adhere to such dogmatic and intransigent approaches.
The SP and other Trotskyist organisations maintain a very high turnover of membership. In many instances Comrades will drift away from the party, without formally resigning, and crucially will not be politically active again or for quite some time. This can perhaps be attributed to ‘burnout’ that many experience due to the aforementioned high levels of activity but also due to an atmosphere which is politcally inhibiting and discourages these Comrades from beginning to critically evaluate politics and the party around them. As a result their new found enthusiasm for Socialist ideas may be extinguished after a short period of time.
Democratic structures are not irrelevant
The SP styles itself as a Bolshevik Party and thus claims to model its democratic structures on those of that party. However, their structures are inherently undemocratic and bear no resemblance to the structure of the Bolshevik Party that they espouse. It is argued that the organisational method commonly known as ‘democratic centralism’ was used by the Bolshevik Party and therefore these practices must be strictly adhered to and replicated. However this argument is ahistorical as the Bolshevik Party rarely even used the term, nor did it often use anything resembling this method before the October Revolution(3).
Whilst it may seem somewhat abstract to catalogue what ‘democratic centralism’ within the SP looks like, we feel that this it is important to paint a broader picture of the structures that prop up the dogmatic culture of the Party. There are three main decision-making bodies of the Party; the National Conference, the National Committee (NC) and the National Executive Committee (NEC). The NEC is made up entirely of full-time party workers. The National Conference is the highest decision making body of the party and meets on an annual basis, while the NC assumes the authority of the Conference between conferences and the NEC assumes the authority of the NC between NC meetings. As the SP is divided into two regions across Ireland, these structures are replicated at regional level too.
In practice, at the annual conference of the Party the outgoing NEC recommends a slate of members for election to the NC. These members are then voted in by a show of hands of conference delegates. These delegates will have been proposed at a branch meeting and in most instances the Branch Committee (BC) will have put forward a suggested slate of delegates that will have been influenced by the full-timer appointed to that branch. These delegates are not answerable to their branch. This is important as it means that in practice that the leadership often recommends and effectively chooses the delegates who in turn will elect the leadership; such a circular mode of electoral practice has obvious implications for democracy within the party. As there are no minutes or voting records kept of NC or NEC meetings, delegates have nothing to base their voting decision on.
The leadership generally will counteract this argument by stating that as they are the only ones that have an overview of the Party, they therefore are best placed in selecting members to leadership positions. Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties in putting forward an alternative slate to that of the party’s leadership, there are clearly much broader systemic problems that an alternative slate simply cannot address. It must be noted too that the slate system was introduced when Lenin was looking to “temporarily minimise dissent” within the Bolshevik Party(4) adopted this method and historically it has been a hallmark of Stalinist parties.
Moreover essentially annual conference is the only time when the opinion or voice of a member who is not on any decision-making committee will be formally recognised. We say this as there is no capacity for members to have their voice heard throughout the year. For example, it is not possible for a member to put motions forward to the National Committee. In other words a member can only formally propose motions to the party once a year at regional or national conference and at no other time.
Top-down decision making process
Ultimately then, power in the Socialist Party lies with a handful of National Executive members and unelected full-timers, themselves appointed to their position by the same National Executive, (occasionally other full-timers will be co-opted on to the NEC after the initial election). This circular structure has the obvious danger of being open to abuse.
Decisions on matters of importance will always find their origin in NEC meetings. When a decision is to be made on strategy or tactics it will be mooted first at a meeting of the NEC or REC (Regional Executive Committee). The internal full-timers who oversee the running of the branches will then filter the proposed position down the ranks often through individual discussions with NC members and ‘leading’ Branch Committee (BC) members. These members will then filter the prospective position down to branch level through individual discussions and branch meetings.
The vast bulk of the National Committee membership, picked due to its adherence to the leadership’s politics, are now more likely to be onside for whatever decision or turn the leadership has decided upon, and will ratify it if necessary at the NC meeting. Meanwhile the rank and file branch members will be notified at their weekly meeting that the party is likely to take a decision on an issue before it happens and after the decision has been taken they will be notified of this. This will usually be the sum total of the involvement of the ordinary member, unless they seriously dissent on the issue, in which case they will be invited to an individual discussion with a full-timer or very occasionally invited to a NC meeting to air their grievance.
The party will use these individual discussions or NC invites to give the impression of a vigorously democratic internal regime, where members with concerns about issues are met with and patiently listened to. However this gives a false image of a party where every meeting is stage-managed and where the communication is very much one-way – the dissenting individuals are there purely to be persuaded that they are wrong and not to be listened to.
These are not academic points, they have a real impact on how a Party is built, how it can grow numerically and can most importantly develop a critically thinking membership. The structure of the Bolshevik Party in the lead-up to the October Revolution revolved around a dynamic internal atmosphere that prided itself on debate through the publications of the Party and at its meetings, at all times public.
Differences on re-building the Workers’ Movement
Whilst every Party makes mistakes the Socialist Party possesses limited ability for self-reflection and critique. Furthermore, the belief that the Party’s small organisation is potentially the nucleus of a revolutionary Party and that every strategy or tactic implemented is in the best interests of the workers movement as a whole is flawed, in particular if those decisions are taken without the participation of working class people outside the SP. Our resignations were premised on stark differences with the leadership on recently taken decisions.
The following quote is taken from the ‘Battle Against The Bin Tax’ document mainly written by Kevin McLoughlin the de-facto leader of the Socialist Party:
The Socialist Party’s view regarding the bin tax and the local elections was that the issue needed to be looked at concretely in the run in to the election period. Any serious electoral challenge could only be based on well built, fighting campaigns with a base in the areas. Weak or phantom campaigns standing candidates would be likely to get small votes. Kevin McLoughlin, Battle Against The Bin TaxWhilst noting that the current context is markedly different to that of 10 years ago, the underlying premise of Kevin’s quote still stands. Rather than engage in a process of evaluation as to why the workers’ movement has not developed since the beginning of the crisis and how the Left can gradually begin a process of building and influencing consciousness, the Party has chosen to dedicate itself to yet another election. Whilst being in favour of standing anti-austerity candidates, we feel that in some areas where CAPTA/AAA is standing, the number of candidates being run and the balance between SP and independent candidates raises serious question marks over the genuine nature of these campaigns.
We also share concerns in relation to the
level of input and influence non-SP members may have within the alliance.
Furthermore we believe that ‘dealing a blow to the establishment’ by getting
some anti-austerity candidates elected is problematic without genuine discussion
around its purpose and where this initiative is leading ultimately.
Another significant disagreement centres on the SP’s trade union work. Any radical organisation must strive to have a significant base or at least be influential within the trade union movement and work places generally. Given that the SP is supposed to be a party of workers there are a worryingly small percentage of members actively involved in trade unions. This is in no small part due to the fact that the SP has placed minimal emphasis on the importance of trade unions as an important area of struggle. In fact in more recent times union members were told explicitly that the trade union movement would not be a key arena for struggle and the SP leadership repeatedly urged its trade union members to severely curtail their activity within the trade union movement and instead focus their entire energy on the struggles against the property and household taxes.
This is all in backdrop to the trade union movement being in the middle of historical battles around the Croke Park agreement and savage attacks on workers. Despite many of its trade union activists being strongly advised that the mood seemed to be favouring rejection of Croke Park 2, it came as a surprise to the SP leadership. Even though certain individuals within the party felt strongly about organising a genuine fightback within their unions we feel the SP leaderships’ emphasis was not on building resistance but more on recruitment.
This approach was clearly evident when immediately after the rejection of Croke Park 2 the Party organised a meeting which cut across a teachers grassroots initiative which included individual socialist party trade unionists(5&6)56 when genuine trade unionists need to concentrate on rebuilding their movement, we feel this can only be achieved by adopting a long-term and committed strategy towards this area of work.
The setting-up of the ‘for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity (ROSA) campaign is another stark example of the Party’s sectarianism.
The formation of ROSA occurred with little or no consultation with branch members and those in whose name it was to be set-up. It seems the party leadership felt they needed to capitalise on the growing strength of feeling around abortion rights and wanted a banner to attract people politicised by the death of Savita Halappanavar towards the SP. True to form ROSA was presented to the branches as a fait accompli; the party line decided by the NEC and the party full timers without any discussion as to why the SP was essentially preparing to operate primarily outside the Choice movement.
In practice what that meant was that members,
especially the small number of active female Comrades, were to curtail
their efforts within ARC and its affiliates and focus on ROSA activity.
The development of choice campaigns into an integrated, broader and more
politicised gender based campaigning group was, of course, far more desirable.
If the SP wanted to further politicize ARC and other Choice campaigns it
should have concentrated itself solely on this task even if the SP did
not have as large a role or influence as is it had wished.
Another area of disagreement we have is around the role and nature of party publications. The Socialist is a further example of the Party’s dogmatic attitude to activism and critical thinking. The paper does not currently have an editorial board and members possess virtually no say in the direction and content of the paper. Essentially the paper represents a ‘sum-up’ of the previous months main stories within the media. Furthermore it must be highlighted that the final paragraph of many of the paper’s articles, which states that the solution to the problems of the piece is ‘workers control and management’ falls far short of what is required to popularise Socialist ideas. The myth of Leninist papers “holding the revolutionary ideas” is a crude deviation from reality and of the original historical significance of this idea. Moreover the oft cited (by the SP leadership)
Leninist tactic of using the paper as a ‘scaffold’ for the party is certainly not practiced in any way or form, nor is any other SP media(7).
There is a serious need for debate around the purpose of publications in re-invigorating and creating a platform of Socialist ideas. Publications should partly serve to stimulate discussion and debate on various issues and must move away from just showcasing the Party and being seen as a tool for recruitment.
At this current stage when the workers’ movement is at such a low ebb the Left should be discussing how we rebuild and generally popularise Marxist ideas. The SP’s dogmatic approach towards programmatic agreement and activity means that it will always be hampered in its ability to grow. When the SP says it is in favour of a ‘new mass workers’ Party’, it is imperative that we discuss how such a Party could develop.
This document does not represent a political attack on any member of the SP and we reiterate that it should be seen as a contribution to the current and wider debate on structures and programme. We do not have any difficulties working alongside the SP within campaigns, trade unions and most crucially the building of a new mass workers party.
Whilst the last 6 years of austerity have provided a so far limited fight-back against these policies, we firmly believe that this situation will and can move in a positive direction. We feel it is imperative that debate, discussion and analysis take place over the current state of the Left as a matter of urgency.
1. This is meant as organisations also
commonly referred to as Leninist and that claim to trace their origins
back to the Fourth International
Your description of the internal life of the Socialist Party rings true, as does the many reports that a similar regime exists within the Socialist Workers party. I concur utterly in seeing such a regime as both reprehensible and as a real barrier to the building of a working class party.
I also agree that an opportunist electoralism is unlikely to aid in the building of a working class party, that there should be a socialist intervention in the trade unions and in defending the rights of woman and that a socialist press should provide analysis of the class struggle and allow open debate. However by themselves these statements are incomplete. What is it that will bring these observations together to found a new movement?
I part company with you when you put Trotskyism in the dock, all the more so when you argue a logical fallacy: The SP are bad. The SP are Trotskyists. Therefore Trotskyists are bad.
It’s important to get this right. There is clearly a major crisis in the socialist movement. If we see it in terms of a failure of organization we are unlikely to arrive at the political basis for a regroupment.
In what sense are the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party Trotskyist? It is true that both came from the Troskyist movement and that the term is frequently thrown at them as a form of abuse, but is it a correct political description of the organizations today?
If we define Trotskyism we must at least refer to key political elements of his political programme such as the concepts of permanent revolution and the transitional programme. While it is certainly the case that a dogmatic restatement of formulae does not help, is it possible to proceed by abandoning these central concepts of Trotskyism?
One consequence of beginning with the Trotskyist programme is that we can see right away that neither the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers Party advanced such a programme. Their perspective did not base itself on the revolutionary overthrow of capital nor did they advance demands that would have acted as stepping stones towards socialism.
Rather the revolutionary phrases were for the consumption of their own members while externally their working everyday programme embraced reformism and advanced a left Keynesian policy that called for a reform of capital as a solution to the crisis.
In my view the current disarray in the Irish socialist movement arises from the failure of this policy, all the more so as the trade union bureaucracy used a Keynesian cover for a much more straightforward policy of capitulation to capital and support for, and implementation of, successive waves of austerity combined with a modernisation programme that is enforcing mass privatisation and the selloff of public resources.
In my experience of many years of activity in the trade union movement contradicts your view that Socialist Party members are not active. There are many members in the unions. The problem is a deep entryism that means that they are active as a loyal opposition with the main goal of winning positions. The party run their campaigns outside union structures and often trade union members keep a low profile and do not attend the SP demonstrations.
The SWP are at times more open and direct in their critique of the union leadership, but this is within the context of a "reconquest" of the unions that restricts union activity to structures hallowed out by decades of social partnership.
It was this popular front orientation that left the socialist movement silent while ICTU lobbied for a wealth tax within the context of support for austerity budgets.
The same orientation restricted the ULA to parliamentary manoeuvres and prevented the formation of an activist democratic party, led to it advancing its own reformist budget and to electoral rivalry between that the groups that eventually led it to implode.
The same orientation forced the exclusion of politics from the construction of the campaign against the household charge until it again was torn apart when the Socialist Party declared it a movement of "tax justice."
So, in the face of a massive offensive against the working class, the actually existing policies of the socialists led to farcical collapse in all its major initiatives.
The problem now is that if we turn away from the political basis of this collapse and suggest that simply by being more open and democratic we can build a new workers movement we will find ourselves simply repeating the electoralist and left reformist mistakes of the current groups. Indeed this appears to be what is happening in both Ireland and Britain.
In my view a new mass party cannot be created by simply bringing together individual socialists or by open discussion of issues. The idea that people with no common practice can create a party seems strange. Why are so many of these formations unable to develop a common practice?
A new unity requires a place to stand. That starting point has to be the interests of the working class and the assertion that the needs of the workers are not to be subordinated to the national interest, the banks, the bondholders or anyone else. That in turn requires a repudiation of the bank bailout and all the attacks, cutbacks and privatizations that arise from that.
A second basic point is that we stand for the self-organisation of the workers and seek mechanisms of solidarity and independence that provide a defence against government and employers on the one hand and the treachery of the trade union bureaucracy on the other.
A third basic point is that, although we are perfectly willing to join with others in seeking partial reforms, we ourselves are socialists and seek the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist society.
The mechanism for converting these aspirations into a revolutionary party is praxis. We should discuss together, but that discussion should be linked to a willingness to act together, no matter how small the scale to begin with.
We are clearly in a period when the existing nostrums of the socialist movement have failed. We have seen a number of splits and breakaways. These have denounced the organizational practices of the parent group. But many have clung to a reformist and opportunist method and have moved to the right, largely around electoral projects. The comrades who have left the Socialist party have made a critique of Trotskyism that I reject, but it is clear that they have moved to the left of the Socialist party and on the grounds that they have laid out there is the possibility of discussion and common action.
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