Wednesday, 11 July 2012

You don't matter and other adventures in socialism

Sometimes when a lefty argument has been going for too long without any real progress or indeed any sort of relevance, I get a bit tetchy, leading to an outburst of 'We don't matter, this doesn't matter!'. I think this is true. Lefties (as in members of leftwing parties or similar) generally do not matter. We are a minute proportion of the population and the size and relevance of any single leftwing party or organisation will be even smaller. So in a very real sense, arguments about intricacies are irrelevant. Our discussions should really have a concrete goal (which can include getting a better understanding of a situation) or just be pursued for pleasure. Either way there's no point beating our heads off a table over issues that are not relevant if there's a fundamental disagreement.

Lenin commented that “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin.” We in Ireland are probably never going to be able to engage in serious politics by this definition, but we can at least hope for tens of thousands, even hundreds. At the moment, we are handfuls, a couple of hundred at the maximum, and the Left has only been able to mobilise those tens of thousands when it has cooperated across party lines to organise on relevant issues. Campaigns like those against the Water Tax and Household Tax have shaped Irish State policy in a real, measurable way. Operating alone, a good day for a Left party is when they get their spokesperson on the radio.

Despite this, the organisational boundaries remain set in stone and the United Left Alliance is neglected. I think this is contrary to the purpose of the left organisations. A party should be formed that has a smaller program than those of the existing parties and organisations, open to the bulk of Irish people to the left of Labour. Following the partyist mentality will not make lefties matter.

What will become of the micro-sect?

So, if there was a dissolution into a larger party, what would happen to the existing parties and formations? In my (limited) experience, small leftwing parties tend to be think-tanks with organisations attached. My suggestion is we hive off the think-tanks into intra-party policy groups which can compete for support for their ideas among the members.

In existing parties, think-tanks may be executive committees or informal cliques (the former is more democratic) but the effect is the same; a small minority come up with policies, the majority vote on and implement them. This can be identified as a problem of engagement or a problem of fact; most people do not want to get involved in policy-making. If the latter, then members should at least have the chance to choose between different policies. If the former, it seems that engagement is probably hindered by the narrow spectrum of debate; if everyone pretty much agrees, what's the point in getting involved in coming up with ideas?

But I think the narrow policy spectrum actually masks internal division; members may actually agree more with members of other organisations then with some of their comrades, they may have misgivings about direction which are not articulated by a explicit alternate policy. If a member disagrees with the organisation's policy, they are faced with a dilemma: get involved in a faction fight to advance their own intellectual leadership (difficult and appealing to few people), put up and shut up (alienating) or leave. To a certain extent this is a problem caused by the need for discipline (i.e. doing political activity that you don't fully agree with), but it is compounded by the small scale of organisations and the zero-sum game in contests for power.

From this perspective, it would make sense to have a larger party with a greater diversity of intellectual leadership, via policy groups that come up with ideas for activity. These would have the same characteristics as a faction leadership; small, with a shared analysis and strategic orientation. Having many of these groups co-existing in a large party would allow members to hear a diversity of views on a subject, make it easy to change their mind or support positions from different cliques and a greater freedom for developing their own policy group if needed.

So the idea here is of a lot of different policy groups coming up with ideas and motions which are then voted on by the membership. This leads to the question of the relationship between legislative and executive branches within the party; is it possible to separate the two? If so, won't this give the executive informal powers to decide what policy is implemented?