Babies and bathwater

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Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists thinks that Owen Jones has thrown out the democratic baby with the bureaucratic bathwater.

Owen Jones baby in bathtub
Owen Jones: should know better

Credit where credit is due: activists in the Labour Representation Committee feel justly proud when we see our very own Owen Jones on TV demolishing rightwing politicians and standing up for students, workers, unemployed and disabled people. But popularity carries the danger of populism, of tailoring demagogy to popular prejudices – saying things the bourgeois media like to hear, such as “The era of the SWP and its kind is over”, and “The era of Leninist party-building surely ended a long time ago”. The Daily Mail and the likes of Nick Cohen have gone into full attack mode against the whole of the left using such arguments.

In his now infamous article putting the boot into the crisis-ridden Socialist Workers Party (The Independent January 20), comrade Owen not only criticises its “autocratic leadership” and its lack of “any semblance of internal democracy”, but also throws out the democratic Bolshevik baby along with the bureaucratic bathwater. Freedom to form factions, with freedom of discussion in public, not just internally, was the norm for the Bolsheviks when they made the revolution in 1917, just as Bolshevik-led revolutionary Russia was the most democratic country in the world, until the revolution was isolated and crushed from without, and finally reversed from within by Stalin’s bureaucratic counterrevolution. Remember, universal suffrage in Britain, including votes for women, was only won later, in 1929.

The SWP’s crisis, and the splitting disease of the revolutionary left today, is directly related to its democratic deficit, its inherited Stalinist bureaucratic centralism. When factions are banned or restricted, when minority views are neither heard nor answered, when public dissent is forbidden, then differences must fester, undeveloped, in private. The real, effective alternative for the left is not networking, but genuine democratic centralism: ‘Freedom of expression, unity in action’. That is the only road to healing unity, to mergers in place of splits, to disciplined unity-in-action based on consent through understanding, not diktat. Only a democratically united revolutionary left can win the working class majority to socialist consciousness and to the Marxist programme for working class (majority) rule leading to human liberation. That is the democratic programme set out by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party – which we should proudly defend, not shamefully forget.

In philistine fashion, comrade Owen junks history. Don’t bother learning the lessons of the Russian Revolution – the greatest achievement of the working class so far. And he advises his proposed “broad”, “networked movement of the left” to avoid being another “battleground for ultra-left sects” – implicitly denigrating the battle of ideas so necessary for our class to work out its own political strategy.

“What is missing in British politics is a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the coalition. That means those in Labour who want a proper alternative to Tory austerity – Greens, independent lefties, but also those who would not otherwise identify as political, but who are furious and frustrated.” It is “a mystery” – to comrade Owen – “that such a network does not already exist”.

But surely there is no mystery here. Everyone on the left is well aware that the disunity and consequent ineffectiveness of the anti-cuts, anti-austerity movement is a direct product of the disunity of the bureaucratic left sects. Each group attempts its own ‘broad’, ‘united’, would-be mass, front organisation. The road to effective mass action is through the struggle for organisational unity, the merging of the revolutionary left groups around the political programme of Marxism. It may seem paradoxical, but organisational unity and unity in action require freedom of opinion, not suppression of dissent. Revolutionary unity requires voluntary discipline in a democratic-centralist Marxist party, not anarchist networking.

However, again, credit where credit is due. Comrade Owen rightly directs his imagined broad left network towards the Labour Party, as it is still part of the workers’ movement: “Labour’s leaders are still to offer a genuine alternative to austerity”, but, he says, so long as the trade union link ties Labour to the working class, “there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people”. But “compelling the party” is here limited to “pressure” rather than winning democratic control over the bureaucracy by the members. If only, he says, we had “a broad network that unites progressive opponents of the coalition … the Labour leadership would face pressure that would not – for a change – come from the right”.

The LRC, however, aims much higher than merely putting our party leadership under mass pressure, according to the ‘Aims and objectives’ section of its rules and constitution (www.l-r-c.org.uk/about/constitution). Rule 2 sets out to “restore the operation of a fully democratic Labour Party”, and rule 5 seeks to “transform the Labour Party into an organisation that reflects the interests of all sections of the working class”. As an essential part of this struggle for democratic control of the party (not merely “pressure”), rule 3 appeals to “all existing Labour Party members and to all socialists outside the Labour Party who it will encourage to join or rejoin the Labour Party”.

When comrade Owen naively offers to “all those desperate for a coherent alternative to the tragedy of austerity” his dream of a broad network free of left debate, he is really leading them up the garden path. They need the truth, not imaginary short cuts. The struggle for democracy must be fought and won in all sections of the workers’ movement. In the revolutionary left organisations, in the trade unions and in the Labour Party, the bureaucracy must be made into servants, not masters.

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This article first appeared in Weekly Worker No 948, February 7 2013:  http://www.cpgb.org.uk/home/weekly-worker/948/babies-and-bathwater