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Submitted by edwardm on Fri, 05/06/2009 - 18:32

1) The Petersburg Military Organisation might well have pressed for an uprising in the July Days, over and against what the CC said. But why act like that split in the Bolsheviks was a good thing? Did it not happen because the Bolshevik Party couldn't communicate effectively; it was operating in fast-moving, confusing conditions; and its ranks were swelling enormously with ill-educated cadre all the time, which, while a good thing in principle, presents major short-term organisational difficulties? Are you not making a virtue of necessity with this example? Might one not argue that the disastrously ill-timed uprising led by Liebknecht in Germany, who acted as a minority in his organisation, was one illustration of where the PMO's rash, ill-disciplined tactics might have led? Either way, this example is hardly a refutation of the idea that co-operation is necessary to success.

I think that the enormous heterogeneity of the Bolsheviks (some describe the party as resembling more of a 'coalition' than a Leninist group) was inevitable given the nature of the revolutionary movement in 1917 and the Bolsheviks' size and hegemony over that movement. The way in which the Bolsheviks were able to withstand that heterogeneity and hold such an organisation together is very impressive, and it contains lessons for how mass parties like the NPA might function in the next period. But you shouldn't make a virtue of necessity! Should the Bolsheviks have *wanted* for an almighty split between the CC and the PMO in July 1917? And by this point, the Bolsheviks were no longer a tight propaganda group, but a mass movement. When they were operating as a small organisation, greater homogoneity was necessary in order for them to make any impact at all. Under current conditions, in small groups like the AWL, people need to pull together more, because a deviation from an agreed course of action on the part of one individual has proportionately much greater impact.

2) Free votes: I agree with you that free votes within a socialist alliance type formation are very important, and I would be the first to argue for us to adopt that approach. To stretch that point a little further, you could point to analogous places like Trade Union left-coalition meetings, where there is also a strong argument for free votes (but again you would need to argue for all participants in a left-coalition to allow their members a free vote... I'm aware that sounds like a cop-out).

But the AWL constitution refers generally to votes in trade unions and elections, which are quite different terrain from Socialist Alliance AGMs! Again, as a small propaganda group operating in a potentially very hostile environment, maximum unity in action is needed in order to make an impact - but even then, not all votes need be tightly whipped by the group. It's a tactical question. I find the idea of being obliged to vote a way that I disagree with problematic and distasteful (and it's not something I've ever actually experienced in my 2 years as a member of the AWL) - but I can imagine a situation where I would just accept that it was a necessary compromise to make.

But then, the difference between the AWL and groups like the SWP shouldn't be blurred - in a more-democratic organisation like the AWL, most of what activists do is determined by agreement and shared understanding; the less transparent and democratic an organisation, the less it bothers to explain itself to its new activists, the more what you say and do is determined by a mixture of knee-jerk sect loyalty and "discipline". So it's a bit tendentious and formalistic to take the existence of a provision for whipping votes as a matter of discipline in our constitution and extrapolate from that, in abstraction from our really-existing democratic culture, that all votes are always a matter of discipline first and foremost, and that all Trot groups are the same. We're not.

3) "You are allowed to state your disagreement briefly, then argue the majority line" - that's a tendentious way of characterising the approach. The constitution says that you should 'state' both the majority line and what you actually think: and in real life, if you're engaged in a political argument with someone, you will argue from your own political perspective, not a majority line you disagree with. The idea is that you shouldn't try to pass off your own minority point of view as the majority line; you should be honest about what you think and what the group thinks. That's not requiring you to gag yourself or act like a drone. And I think this tendentious reading of how we operate (and I think you know you're stretching the truth here) masks our fundamental agreement - socialism should be about telling the truth and speaking your mind, and open-ness of debate should come before "discipline".

4) Yes, the group has a right to know if you're working with other groups, and what on. I've been out canvassing for a left council candidate in my area who was a member of another group, and I gave an NC member a heads-up about it. But that doesn't imply that we're sectarian. We encourage co-operation between groups! We're calling for the formation of Socialist Alliance! "Supervision" doesn't mean that we send Martin Thomas to chaperone you every time you meet a member of another group - it means that, in the interests of accountability, the group's elected committees and organisers should know what the group is getting up to (and vice versa). That isn't patronising, it's just organisational commonsense.

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