Get with the programme! By William Bowles

18 April 2005

Some (maybe many) people may regard me as a bit of hangover from the previous century, what with all my talk of Socialism, when it appears as if, at best, we are fighting a rearguard action against the forces of reaction. Yet I continue to trundle out my cries of outrage against the current order. Some might call it pissing in the wind given how small we are in numbers. However, undeterred, I continue to try and make some sense of events; to try and pierce the veil of disinformation that has descended on us like a sodden blanket.

For example, on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme (14/4/05) a political pundit expressed the view that the “collective was a dead issue”, that the politics of the three major parties were essentially the same (a variation on Thatcherism) which was fine as politics was now an expression of ‘individual needs’, expressed as ‘personal values’, for example, “fear of crime”, indeed, fear of all kinds of things now dominated ‘political discourse’ and that politicians had no choice but to address these ‘issues’. So socialism is dead, long live socialism!

In an earlier piece (’Caliban and the Witch Triggered’) where I said the book:

triggered a lot of thoughts in my mind but especially why, in spite of our fundamental understanding of the nature of the capitalist system, it’s proving so difficult to produce a viable and acceptable alternative.

Which elicited this response from a reader (who also sent me a mss to read):

I think you are overlooking the considerable literature on sustainable economics, localism, etc. The problem is not really about coming up with alternatives; it’s really about achieving the power to change our course at all.

To which I replied:

Well my issue is not that we don’t have enough understanding, skills etc but that no political formation has yet to take it all onboard and put forward a practical programme that people can believe in before one can even take on the daunting task of changing anything.

To which I got the (rather patronising I think) reply:

very good. you realize that politics is the real issue. but programme is not the answer – it can only divide.

A response that could well be coloured by his experience of political parties and programmes, yet what are the alternatives to a programme? This is no idle question and the issue of how best to organise ourselves is intimately tied up with a number of questions of real importance.

Something I remember from my early daze as a novice Red comes to mind and it concerns democracy, namely that any political party that advocates ‘real’ democracy had to be internally democratic if it was to stand even half a chance of convincing anybody else.

Some communist/left parties have in the past (and no doubt, some of those that survive, still do), described their form of internal democracy as ‘democratic centralism’ by which they mean that before any kind of public ‘position’ is arrived at it should be fully debated and the result produced either through a vote or in some instances through consensus, with ‘minority’ positions ‘duly noted’. Once a programme had been agreed on, members were bound by the rules to ‘follow the programme’. But what to do about the minority who even after a vote or consensus, still maintain that their line or position is correct? Moreover, under the rules of democratic centralism, whilst debates can continue, they should not be conducted in public, the argument being I assume, don’t do your ‘dirty washing in public’, present a common front and so on. It makes sense unless you want to be portrayed as a bunch of squabbling politicos, yet at the same time, the minority position may well be correct.

Some left parties allow for what they call ‘tendencies’. These tend (excuse the pun) to be ‘variations on a theme’. In other words whilst in broad agreement, they may differ on particular issues. Sometimes the ‘tendencies’ are at such a variance with the ‘official’ line that either they make a bid for the leadership, they leave or, worst case, they get kicked out. Ah- the cut and thrust of politics. The ‘problem’ with tendencies is that they can behave like a party within a party and can lead to a complete break-up or the party splitting like amoeba into smaller and smaller ‘factions’ of the original. This is almost exclusively a ‘disease’ of the Left.

In theory however, democratic centralism is quite an effective form of internal democracy, the problem is that rarely is it ever actually practiced. Once you have a leadership they tend to try and hang onto power even if only because they believe ‘their’ programme is the best one and will do all in their power to resist a challenge to their leadership. One would assume that the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’ and any party that failed to deliver some kind of evidence of their growing popularity would die off. That left/socialist parties even in today’s climate still survive, indicates that something still stirs in the loins of the radical tradition. But let’s face it, outside of the developing world where la luta still continues, we barely warrant being classified as an irritant let alone the instigators of revolution (some would argue that without being elevated to a threat to capitalism by the ruling classes in the first place, we would not have had the influence we undoubtedly had).

The debate about how to transform/overthrow capitalism has gone on now for well over a century but the revolution has yet to be televised, let alone reported on.

Yet the fear of revolution still lingers on, why else does a radical trade union raise the spectre of the ‘hard left’ in the media? So perhaps the smug pundits speak as they do of the ‘end of the collective’ more out of wishful thinking than the reality, for the idea if not the reality of socialism is present in every country on the planet whether it’s public services, state intervention or just the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism. So whilst we might be in a slump right now, the very fact that the ‘experts’ continue to advertise our demise, methinks they protest rather too much.

But I digress. So how to make the leadership fully accountable? Much like a vote in a general election, much depends on how informed and active the members are. Many, if not the majority of a political party are quite content to follow their leaders, it’s only a minority who generally challenge the ‘leadership’.

And I assume this is why the reader challenged the idea of a programme. Programmes inevitably become ‘cast in stone’. Okay then, let’s drop the tag of programme and talk about objectives instead. Can we agree on objectives, let’s say socialism? (Big chunk cut out here whilst the comrades spend 150 years arguing about the nature of socialism.)

But let’s assume after 150 years we now have a broad working agreement on what kind of socialism it is we want, you have then to deal with how to achieve the objective. If the objective is too vague or not made explicit, in other words practical, then we’ll have problems selling it to the punters (never mind the fact that if the dominant culture thinks you really are a threat to the status quo, then it’ll put all kinds of obstacles in the way).

So how does one build a ‘real’ democratic party? Is such an animal possible? What does it consist of? How important is it that it’s democratic? What the hell is ‘real democracy’ anyway? This is no throwaway question. I’ll give you an example from my own experience in South Africa working for the ANC.

It was early Saturday morning 10 April 1993 and I got a phone call:

‘Com, Chris Hani has been assassinated. We need you at Jeppe Street.’

Hani was a genuine peoples’ hero in South Africa and loved by the great majority of South Africans. His assassination was intended to create a crisis in the run-up to the 1994 election that could have sabotaged them. The people in the townships were understandably angry that their hero had been murdered and were out on the streets demonstrating. If allowed to get out of control, it could have triggered a response from the state and all hell would have broken loose. That, after all, was the immediate intention of the assassination.

The problem for the ANC leadership was what to do? There was no time for a wide debate, decisions had to be made on the spot. Had the wrong decisions been made then chaos might have ensued. The PWV branch executive (as it was then called) debated the issue for several hours (a debate I was not party to) and it was decided that meetings had to be organised all over the province immediately, like there and then! Without an effective, centralised leadership such an action would have been impossible. It had to have a programme of action. Slogans had to be agreed on, locations and times, speakers selected and then communicated and all in less than a day across the province and in locations often without telecommunications. I think we printed tens of thousands of leaflets for dozens of locations, I know we wore the single duplicator out.

In any case, it worked and culminated with a three day-long funeral at the Standard Bank Arena in Soweto which I attended as a member of the ANC’s department of information and publicity.

Whilst this may be an exceptional situation it is by no means atypical. Decisions need to be made, often under less than ideal circumstances. More generally, without the full participation of the party’s membership in the decision-making process, the leadership are generally left to ‘get on with it’ and it’s only when things ‘go wrong’ that you see murmurings in the ranks.

Trusting the leadership to follow through with a programme that has been fully debated and agreed upon doesn’t necessarily make it the correct one of course but is it good enough to put one’s trust in?

When proposing the idea of a new party of the Left, I make the assumption that all the things that have been missing from earlier attempts have now been fully incorporated such as gender, ‘race’, the environment and so forth. That we now have an all-embracing ‘programme’ that broadly satisfies majority of the members of the ‘party’.

So, back to the ‘programme’. What, precisely, is wrong with the idea of a programme? Surely a set of objectives based upon an underlying philosophy is a pre-requisite? How else can one communicate an objective?

One proposed alternative to the idea of a monolithic political party is typified by the Global Justice Movement which is essentially a coalition of a range of organisations opposed to the imperium. The problem with this approach is reconciling such a huge range of constituencies who might well be opposed to global capitalism but divided over tactics let alone what they want to see capitalism replaced with.

The African National Congress is an example of the advantages as well as the disadvantages of this approach. United by its opposition to Apartheid, once Apartheid had been (formally) abolished, the inherent divisions between the members of the Alliance (the ANC, the Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions) became apparent, with the ANC the dominant member triumphing not only because neither the Communist Party nor COSATU ran candidates in the post-apartheid elections but perhaps more importantly, because they subsumed their positions to the ANC’s essentially neo-liberal economic agenda.

It wasn’t long before the divisions became apparent led by COSATU. The reasons are pretty obvious for COSATU represents the organised working class, the industrial workers, who although only about 10% of the workforce, constituted the ‘labour aristocracy’ and clearly a neo-liberal economic agenda wasn’t in their interests. The Communist Party decided to put its own agenda on the ‘back burner’, but for how long? To this one has to add the fundamental question: was Socialism possible in the post-Apartheid situation? Most likely not, but in the period preceding the 1994 election a remarkable document was developed called the ‘Reconstruction and Development Programme’ (RDP) (I even contributed a paragraph or two) that whilst not by any means a programme for socialism, it nevertheless advocated a radical restructuring of the economic and social order.

The RDP was the result of the collaboration and debate by an extremely wide range of constituencies and in my opinion was and remains a unique document that embodied many of the lessons we have learned about the difficulties of bringing about economic, political and social change. So although it wasn’t advocating socialism it was proposing that in the post-Apartheid situation, change had to be structural rather than cosmetic and once instituted, difficult to reverse. Moreover, it wasn’t merely a social democratic solution, but a genuinely progressive programme that had it been implemented would have seen a real transformation take place in the lives of ordinary South Africans.

What’s interesting about the RDP is that it was the result of a wide range of very different political groups from the Communist Party through to Civic organisations (a unique South African expression), NGOs, trade unions, academics, all contributing to a single programme for what was envisaged as the first stage of a post-Apartheid South Africa. I’ve made the document available here as a Word file, and I really do think it’s worth reading.

And whilst the RDP addresses the very specific conditions of post-Apartheid South Africa, the approach that it took was very similar to the kinds of decision-making we see in the Global Justice Movement.

But as with the transition that took place in South Africa in 1994, the critical period is during the time any transformation is possible – ‘the window of opportunity’. How to assure that during the transition process, all the constituents have direct representation and input? The RDP for example, was (reluctantly) taken onboard by the ANC, but the ANC had little real input into the programme and once elected, it was applied piecemeal and often very badly, for example, the housing component. Eventually the RDP was just a memory, an embarrassing reminder of the ANC’s progressive history and how dependent it was on its partners in the Alliance for actual solutions to problems and for the vital administrative skills that the ANC lacked.

Political change then is not just about having the right solutions but just as importantly, it’s about having the skills to implement them. What political structures actually emerge from the current situation it is, I think, too early to know, but the days of monolithic political parties that claim to have all the answers is I’m pretty sure, dead. But it seems to me that a contemporary political formation on the Left has to be set in the global context in spite of all the practical difficulties that confront creating such an entity.

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