Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

ULA: What kind of party do we need? 4

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ULA: What kind of party do we need? 4

Guest post

1. Publish and be damned.

At a People Before Profit Alliance Activists Meeting in May Kieran Allen of the SWP responded to Brendan Young’s call for a ULA publication – not a PBPA publication – by firmly ruling it out. His argument was that to have a publication you need to have agreement on what to say in it and the ULA was a diverse formation and therefore was not in a position to produce a publication. If that were the only obstacle it would be easily overcome by acknowledging that the publication should, in any case, carry debate within the overall context of the agreed message.

On this site Mark P of the Socialist Party took issue with Brendan in response to his article ‘United Left Alliance “A Work in Progress” -Steps Towards a New Party’:

Brendan had asserted that “the production of an independent publication for the ULA – to give expression to our views and an independent identity to the organisation – remains an argument to be won”. Mark P did not agree and commented:

“The fixation on a ULA publication, and the assumption that this would play some important role in overcoming federalism seems a little strange to me. What sort of publication is Brendan suggesting, and what purpose is it to serve?

Is this just being proposed out of a kind of habit – “proper” left groups have papers – or is it really a good use of resources? Who is this publication to be aimed at? What resources are to be put in it? What politics should it argue?

I’m not necessarily opposed to there being a ULA publication, but I’ve yet to hear any convincing arguments on the subject. Just talking about ‘a publication’ is much too vague – different publications serve different purposes and require different resources.”

If your materialism leaned towards the reductionist you might be tempted to accuse those with goods to sell themselves of blocking a new competitor in the marketplace. Let’s be neither vulgar nor rude. But there is a sweeping ‘common sense’ response that does seem sensible enough without the need for the detail justifications which Mark P demands for a publication. If the gander needs a publication then so does the goose. Why, a publication would serve the same purpose for the ULA as any one of the several publications sold by the Socialist Party serves for the Socialist Party; and the same applies to the SWP! Is it really necessary to rehearse the positive arguments for a publication – leaving aside for the present the form of that publication – for people who themselves place such store in an old-technology, albeit brightened, regular newspaper. To rehearse arguments about message, media and organisation? Providing page references to What Is To Be Done?

“Is this just being proposed out of a kind of habit..?” asks Mark P. Like the habit of the SP and the SWP in putting their resources into publications? Publications which are not doubted by their publishers because rather than a lack of printed matter even small events are adorned by paper sellers, and ULA meetings – to which people with of course no great interest in publications – are reached through a gauntlet of paper sellers.

Settling upon the kind of publication, newspaper, magazine, journal, website, is secondary. The age of print is over. Or so we are told. I think maybe the left hangs on to its papers because of what Jack O’Connor of SIPTU remarked upon at the Gresham conference on the Left in February, that ‘people may say the newspaper is dead but they will all go out and buy them tomorrow’ (a Sunday).

One new socialist organisation in Britain, Counterfire, has based itself on a website in the same way as the organisation it arose from has always based itself on a paper. Counterfire says, if I remember correctly, that you don’t launch a printed paper today. And they do have a very attractive and useful website, a ‘publication’ of a type that could maybe meet the needs of the ULA. I’m not rigid on paper v. screen, but prefer paper, being old-fashioned.

Like with a half-heartedness about membership and political discussion it is hard to hear demotion of a publication from those who prize all these things at home. A thin image of the ULA appears, an electoral alliance, a protest campaign, a local agitation, in no need of a socialist party’s means of broadcast, persuasion, exposure, unification and centralisation, exchange, education , debate and outreach.

When the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) was founded in the late 1970s the pre-existing groups went in whole and the then Socialist Workers Movement (SWM) suspended its own paper (The Worker) and published a well-produced magazine (Socialist Worker Review) as the Socialist Workers Tendency. The uneasy joke for a while was that the tendency publications were better than the party ones! For a while the SLP had no paper. Then SWT member Brian Trench became editor of Socialist Labour, the SLP’s new newspaper. The SWT had pressed (sorry!) for an SLP newspaper. The SWM made mistakes in the SLP, notably coming out of it when it did, but in this case a tendency had correctly taken the lead in establishing the broad party’s publication.

2. Molyneux two

I should have made clearer reference to the significance to the present deliberations of having John Molyneux as a new neighbour. He is the author of Marxism and the Party (Bookmarks, London, 1978, republished 1986, and by Haymarket, Chicago, 2003) a minor classic and certainly a very readable summation and textbook (kinda) of the development and theory of organisation in the marxist tradition. There are some copies on Amazon and it is worth tracking down for a background briefing on the party from a ‘bolshevik’ perspective that is orthodox but not rigid.  It was Marxism and the Party incidentally that Dunayevskaya thrashed, with undeserved harshness, as an “inglorious achievement”.

The preface to the 1986 edition reappraises some of the first outing, including some not very satisfactory revision of his previous enthusiasm for Gramcsi. But the willingness to reconsider over time makes for curiosity over how he would, now that he is actually involved in a broad political formation with a shared aim of creating a new party somewhere along the road, see it, and the rake of similar entities around the globe, fitting into the bolshevik tradition. Murray Smith and others have touched upon some theoretical underpinning of the broad party but it would be interesting, especially if John Molyneux was sufficiently sympathetic, to see this new stage in organisation fitted into the canon with the same rigour that Marxism and the Party tackles previous stages and adaptations.

3. The ‘S’ word.

If we were in Greece, Portugal or Spain would there be such heat about whether or not the ULA calls itself ‘socialist’. The Socialist Parties there are like the Labour Party here and their cleaving to the word ‘socialist’ does not give them anything real. Social Democracy was one the term for revolutionary socialism. It became necessary to use other language and it was done. ‘Socialism’ is, at least in Ireland I think, still a simple way of describing the fundamental decency socialists stand for, the democracy at the heart of it, and the root and branch change we want to the whole system. And it was James Connolly’s repeatedly used word. I would like the ULA to explicitly espouse socialism and even to use it in its name. But I also see that there are reasons, some good some bad, why many people who would come to the ULA might not like the word. In the recent past the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group were against the use of ‘socialism’ and may continue to be so.

So, if a clear majority supports the use of ‘socialism’, for a policy platform that is, no matter what you call it, socialist by any reasonable use of the word, so much the better. If there is widespread opposition or wariness we should not insist on raising obstacles or, worse, denouncing whoever argues against the use of the ‘S’ word with other words like ‘opportunist’ or ‘reformist’.

Des Derwin

One Response

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  1. Tomas and Des, it might have been better to post all of these pieces over a slightly longer period of time. You would be more likely to get a discussion going in advance of the forum on Saturday and more people would have read them.

    To take your points in order:

    1) No, “sauce for the goose” isn’t really an adequate “general” defence of having a publication.

    The Socialist Party has a whole load of publications (a newspaper, a magazine, an internal bulletin, a number of local freesheets, various websites). Each of those publications has its own distinct purpose and its own justification for existing. Arguments for one of them do not justify another of them. They have different roles and different purposes and require different resources. Nobody would ever get away with a general argument for “a publication” for the Socialist Party, and rightly not. Nor would anyone in some of our newer sister organisations in other countries when they were moving towards setting up their first publication. This is a concrete issue, involving the use of real resources and is not something which can be successfully argued for in the abstract.

    You further confuse the issue by including websites under your general argument. The ULA already has a website. It’s very basic, but nobody is going to oppose the idea of souping it up – something which would be relatively easy to do in terms of resources. If you really have no particular preference for print, then let me offer you some free tactical advice: If you make a clear, reasoned, case for a regularly updated, fancy, ULA website, including the kind of resources you are talking about and where they are to come from, and how the website is to be pitched, you’ll probably find the going much easier in convincing people than you will with an abstract call for “a publication” of unspecified format, cost, distribution and purpose.

    Make a case for a particular ULA publication, whether a website or a print publication, and we’ll actually have something to discuss. There’s no substance to your argument as it stands.

    2) John Molyneux is an interesting writer, but I’m unaware of him producing any public writings on the question of the party which are significantly at variance with the line of the SWP leadership in many decades. And I would be surprised if he started now.

    3) This is a cop out position. There are different conceptions of what the ULA should be. The Socialist Party favours a ULA which argues for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist society. The SWP favours a ULA which does not do that, because it sees doing that as “rasing barriers” to the widest possible involvement.This is not a semantic argument and treating it as one is borderline dishonest. I’m not suggesting that we go around arguing by affixing nasty labels to each other, but there are different and contending political visions of the ULA and we should discuss them without fear that being open about our disagreements will tear the ULA apart.

    Mark P

    Jun 24, 2011 at 4:47 pm

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