My daughter is planning to build her own house in the next year or two – an exciting, if somewhat daunting prospect. However, when confronted by an empty piece of open ground and a blank sheet of paper, she’s found it much easier to start the process which will end up with a fully detailed blueprint by saying a) what she doesn’t want it to be like and b) saying, in the broadest terms, what elements it needs to contain. So she knows that she doesn’t want a tacky ‘executive home’, or a fake LA palace, or a Grand Designs type glossy ‘statement’ house. She knows she wants her house to have as little environmental impact as possible and so she doesn’t want to use materials that have high levels of embodied energy. But she does want to have four bedrooms so that she has room for her doddery old parents when they come to stay, she does want some open space for her kids to play in and does want her home to be light, warm and both cheap and easy to maintain.
So even though, at the moment, she doesn’t have any settled picture of what it will look like, she is well on the way to developing the basis on which a well thought out and fit for purpose home for the future can be designed and built – in particular one with a spare room for me, of course.
This is all a rather heavy handed and somewhat Thought for the Day like way of me introducing the idea that those of us who will be launching a new party of the left in a few weeks time are in a similar position to my daughter in the formative stages of designing her house – to start with, it’s much easier to say what the new party shouldn’t be like.
To start with, it shouldn’t be a rerun of the last two doomed attempts to establish a new left party in Britain, the Socialist Alliance and Respect. The first had a federal structure which was stitched up by the two largest sects, the SWP and the Socialist Party, and the second was a stitch-up between the SWP and George Galloway. In both, individual members had little or no say in the direction of the organisation and were seen simply as potential recruits to whichever of the sects was running things at the time. So, the party needs to be rigorously democratic – in reality rather than merely on paper. Keeping members informed of all aspects of the organisations activities, encouraging the widest possible debate on everything and ensuring that all ordinary rank and file party members make up the majority of the members of every elected committee or working group (and that at least 50% of them should be women) are the essential foundations of the democracy that is the lifeblood of a socialist party.
It shouldn’t be, or at least shouldn’t primarily be, a regroupment of the existing far left grouplets. The one thing that the left sects have achieved over the last thirty odd years is to promote the idea that socialists are simultaneously swivel eyed fanatics and dishonest opportunists. Their great crime has not just been that they have given socialism a bad name – which they have, nor that they have, over the years, managed to burn out and disillusion tens of thousands of new recruits and turn them away from the socialist cause, but that they have made radical socialism synonymous with their fetishistic 1917 re-enactment society forms of organisation. They have become embarrassing. While we should actively welcome all socialists into the new party, from the left of the Labour Party to the wilder shores of syndicalism or council communism (including individual members of the various rival comic opera bolshevik parties) – or even those like activists from Occupy or the Green Party who hate injustice but aren’t quite sure what socialism is, we should have nothing to do with the sects as organisations. They belong to the past
Lastly, we shouldn’t get obsessed about programmatic purity. Rather than telling the toiling masses, or students, or women, or any other group of ordinary people what they should be thinking or doing about about the plight of indigenous Amazonion forest dwellers, the intricacies of the civil war in Syria or the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from global warming (not that these issues aren’t important and worthy of serious consideration by socialists) we should be developing our programme for action and our priorities from the daily experience of workers and communities facing the concrete realities of day to day class struggle. To paraphrase Lenin (something I try to keep to a minimum) the party should always be one step ahead of the class – but never more than one step. That means that the party must base itself and its activity in the heart of working class communities and take its lead in terms of priorities for action from the actual concerns of those communities in order to assist them, both materially and ideologically, to develop their potential for self activity in response to the real life issues that they actually have to contend with.
Just being right (always assuming we are) isn’t going to give us any particular credibility with real life working people – indeed because much of what we have to say so conflicts with ‘common sense’, which Gramsci described as ‘the folklore of bourgeois ideology’, that our politics, if delivered as a sermon, are likely to actually undermine whatever credibility we might have. The only way that we can earn the opportunity to be taken seriously and listened to is by being seen to be the most stalwart and reliable defenders of local communities against any and all attacks on any part of them. In the process, we will learn from those communities and the party and its program will be enriched. As my old comrade Harry Wicks, a founder member of the YCL, used to say, the party has to become the university of working people, but a university in which they come to teach as well as to learn.