Below we are republishing a letter sent to the leadership of a large Pakistani socialist organization — Revolutionary Struggle. They have subscribed to The Socialist Network and became its affiliate. This is a letter of solidarity written by one of TSN’s political organizers — Jonathan Clyne. We decided to reproduce it on our website and make it public especially due to the fact that the author makes a few important points regarding not only the reality around us, but the way current and historical events have influenced socialist organizations around the world. Please, do not hesitate to comment on it. Either here, below the entry or on our facebook page.
My warmest greetings to your CC meeting!
The year 2008 was not only the year in which the deepest and longest economic downturn since the thirties began. It also marks a year, just like 1968 or 1989, in which there was a fundamental shift in consciousness worldwide. I am not referring to consciousness in the sense of ?let us go out and fight now? or ?we need a new government?, but in a much more fundamental, but at the same time more everyday sense. In the sense of how people in their daily thinking look upon the world. In 1968 a shift of consciousness occurred in the advanced capitalist countries from ?we accept the system, because we can improve our political and economic situation bit by bit? to ?we can no longer tolerate dictatorship in the work places; we can no longer accept simply being a cogwheel in the machine?. This had far ranging implications and brought some countries to the brink of revolution. In 1989, this process was reversed. After numerous defeats, broad swathes of the working class resigned themselves to thinking ?capitalism is the only possible system; if we are going to improve our lot we must focus on working harder and finding individual solutions?.
At least one generation, the one that has just come of age and is the most energetic one, is decisively formed by the great events in those years that are turning points. It takes roughly two decades, before a new generation, untouched by the previous events, is ready to meet the world.
2008 marks the year when a new generation entered the political scene. This new generation has been formed by the sight of the titans of finance in the heart of imperialism, Wall St, standing there completely nonplussed. Right there on television they showed that they had no idea what was going on. Desperation was in their eyes. There was no way they could blame workers for being too greedy or living above their means. It was clear that it was the capitalists themselves that had made a big mess out of things, completely unaided.
In the end, they had to turn to the state to save them. The hated state. The state that they had always maintained should stay as far away from their business as possible. Now it turned out that the old slogan ? ?What is good for General Motors is good for America? ? meant that state intervention was good for America.
Since then we have had a big rise in unemployment and no end in sight to austerity. Few doubt today that what we have experienced is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. Not surprisingly almost half of young people in the USA today have a positive view of socialism.
The new everyday consciousness can be summed up in the phrases ?this system does not work; we need a new system?. This consciousness extends far beyond the younger generation. The search has begun for a system to replace capitalism.
In 1968, the leaders of the labour movement were taken completely unaware by the shift of consciousness. They were astonished and frightened, but they quickly adapted and used the authority they had built up over decades to get the movement into safe channels ? they claimed that workers must be patient and that a new society can be built bit-by-bit. That argument had some force to it, because the preceding decades improvements had been achieved bit-by-bit. Today, the idea that you can build a new society bit-by-bit is dead. Reformist ideology has no credibility because Social democratic parties, when in power, have bit-by-bit dismantled many of the gains of the past. Communist parties disintegrated at the same speed as the Soviet Union.
Given this situation, it ought to be the finest hour for Marxist groups. This was the situation we dreamed of for many years ?crisis, the complete discrediting of the labour leadership, a movement for a new society. But all we have seen is splits and decline among Marxists groups. This is universal.
I think the reason for this is that the new situation found all Marxist groups in a terrible state. In terms of theory, we had stood still for decades. Almost no serious theoretical work has been done since the period that immediately followed the end of WWII, despite the world having changed considerably since then. Nor have there been any deeper programmatic discussions. The hard work of developing theory and program was reduced to scanning a few newspapers for things to cut and paste together with the quote of the day from one of the classics of Marxism. In addition, a few textbooks, already out-dated when written, have been compiled.
Last but by no means least, the problems of Marxist groups have stemmed from their organisational structures. Marxist groups have been guided by more or less the same organisational principles as most Communist parties, Social-democratic parties, trade unions, capitalist companies, and state apparatuses.
- The main ideas are expected to come from and be expressed by the central leadership.
- Secondly, the leadership must control all the work.
- All disagreements are supposed to first be raised with the leadership, and then only spread in channels approved by the leadership.
- A minority may only organise an opposition in exceptional circumstances, if at all, and conditions are normally attached to them doing so.
- Once a decision is taken, even if there is a minority opinion, the minority is expected to push the majority line or at least keep quiet about its own opinions.
- Under the guise of confidentiality, all kinds of discussions and decisions are taken behind closed doors and then only presented as a fait accompli.
- All disagreements should only be expressed within the organisation.
A detailed analysis of these points can be found HERE.
Summed up these principles mean that the means of communication are in the hands of the leadership, and thereby they are able to concentrate an inordinate amount of power in their hands, regardless of whether or not there is a formal democratic structure.
In Marxist groups, the adoption of these organisational methods was not necessarily the result of a hunger for power by individuals. It could also be the result of the expectations of many rank-and-file members. Most were raised in families, schools, workplaces and the labour movement where these methods were the norm and therefore expected that the leaders of their Marxist group behave in the same way. Anything else could be looked on with suspicion. The pressure to live up to these expectations could be great and make life intolerable for even many of the best of leaders.
No wonder we have failed both to develop ideas and to connect to the movement. We have adopted the stifling organisational methods of our enemies!
This is the heritage we must renounce and can renounce. The new situation not only makes it essential, but also makes it possible. The old methods can only lead to further splits and disintegration. It is an organisational model that was perfect for labour movement leaders, company executives, and state apparatchiks. It is the model whereby a small group of leaders can maintain control over a larger group.
When a small group has a power base arising from its connection to a strong force (such as those who own the means of production or the Soviet state), the model can have a certain stability. In small groups that are in opposition to the powers that be it creates instability, intrigues, splits, rumour-mongering, acrimony. Above all, it kills both the possibility of developing ideas and of connecting to the working class except for brief fleeting moments.
This is not how the Bolsheviks became the party that led the first successful workers revolution. No issue was too small or too ?organisational? or too ?personal? not to be discussed publicly. Nobody asked anybody?s permission to organise a faction. They just went ahead and did it. They united in action (Yes!), but never was anybody expected to argue for a line they did not believe in and shut up about their beliefs. Just check the works of Lenin. There are countless examples. This is what turned the Bolsheviks into a powerhouse of intellectual creativity and attracted the overwhelming majority of the working class to them.
Not surprisingly the new generation of political activists find nothing attractive about small claustrophobic groups dominated by personality cults and slogans. Why should anybody brought up without either a tradition of a functioning reformist or communist party, and attuned to the freer interactions on the internet, want anything to do with all those self-righteous groups? They are not going to be convinced by an argument that justifies something on the basis of a quote from somebody who has been dead for almost 150 years. That did not even work 100 years ago when the Bolsheviks grew into a mass party in a country where it took weeks for the post to arrive and where 90 percent of the population was illiterate. They went through their arguments again and again. Often Lenin began as a minority of one, but had to patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) argue his way to a majority, in the course of which he changed his own position.
The coming of the crisis in 2008 meant that all the underlying tensions that build up in any claustrophobic organisation came to the surface. Split followed split. But we were determined to make something positive out of it. To analyse the mistakes of the past; to build up an understanding of the present; and to begin the construction of something that could change the future.
It has been a long and difficult process, with many setbacks. The old organisational methods, ideas and experiences generated an enormous amount of frustration, personal disappointment and bitterness, and confused slogans. We were determined not to take any organisational measures against people who disagreed, to explore, experiment, and discuss. All at the same time as we were active in the movement. No wonder it has taken time and many have fallen by the wayside. And our process of renewal is far from over.
However, the Nicosia conference marks a decisive turning point. In Istanbul we made the first steps towards establishing the outline of an organisation – The Socialist Network. In Nicosia we did more than that.
For 18 years I was a member of the IEC of the IMT. For 15 years before that, I followed the workings of the international leadership from a distance. The fact of the matter is that there never was an international leadership. There were some outstanding leaders. Ted made some essential theoretical contributions. Alan used to be an excellent writer and speaker. There were some good organisers. But there was no leadership, in the sense of a group of people who together can discuss ideas and work out new ones. Rather it was a group of people involved in a theatrical performance, with a few stars, some of whom behaved like primadonnas.
To me, our ability to put all those methods behind us and embark on a new infinitely more positive road was the lasting result of the Nicosia conference. We worked out the ideas together, with everybody contributing. And that created real quality.
We have retied the knot to the best Bolshevik traditions. Actually, we have done better than so. We have dispensed with what Ted Grant called Lenin?s weakest side ? his use of personal invective. The conference preceded in a spirit of comradeship, despite at times serious differences. Differences that we managed to take steps towards resolving. It was a liberating sensation to understand that minority opinions do not just ?disappear?. It took prestige out of the discussion. One can continue to discuss opinions, even after a majority decision has been taken. There is no desperation to get one?s ideas through, no matter what. This is of vital political importance. It will enable us to open up a genuine dialogue with others, find a way forward, and join forces.
Already the conference has led to ripples on the water. The website has improved significantly with more and more material appearing. The material comes from all kinds of sources that we think can contribute towards developing the discussion about how we can change society. Further improvements of the website are under way. Room is being prepared on the website for a discussion about The Socialist Network Manifesto, that we hope can synthesize the best out of all the material we publish and all the discussions we are having. The facebook group has developed too, with at times lively and interesting discussions.
The next conference of The Socialist Network is planned for November. It is of vital importance that comrades from Pakistan participate. Comrades from Pakistan have much to contribute. I say that after having been in Pakistan many times and met numerous comrades. However, all too often comrades have been reluctant to express their thoughts, except in private. I think this is a culture that needs to be changed. It is not going to be easy. It has not been so internationally. But it is possible, and the benefits are great. We have a world to change! I wish you a successful CC meeting!