Tuesday, 7 August 2007

PR And “The Kids”

As most comrades will be aware, the small British group Workers Power and its network of clone-parties the League For the Fifth International (LFI) has recently fallen on hard times. Last summer, a minority consisting largely of the group's most experienced and talented activists were ejected, forming around a new and impressively shiny publication called Permanent Revolution (as the “PR supporters network”, or PRN). Not long after that, its “independent” youth group REVOLUTION (popularly called Revo) was forced to expel whole layers of non LFI-affiliated youngsters – again, including whole national sections, such as that in Germany. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the PRN would have to confront the question of youth organisation anew. Sure enough, this has happened, firstly in an open letter to iRevo's founding conference last yeari, and now in a full article in the latest issue of PRii. both by leading (and not, it is probably fair to say, particularly young) figure Stuart King.

Youth organisation today

Firstly, the good news – King's logic flows from a very important fact: the lack of mass communist parties (Lessons, p37). Where such parties exist, it may be perfectly permissible, tactically speaking, to organise a youth section which is effectively within the party, subject to the same discipline as everybody else. In such circumstances, young comrades will naturally gravitate towards the party anyway, because it would be the expression of communist politics from the campus to the streets. Such a party, furthermore, would have to maintain full minority rights, and so “discipline” would not be the sort ofchafing, rigid regime we have come to expect.

However, this is not the scenario confronting youth and adult parties alike in 2007. Thus, the decisions of the Bolsheviks on the subject are largely of peripheral value, since they were confronting a very different era. It is good, then, that King uses as his starting point the 1938 positions of the American Socialist Worker's Party, for decades the largest and most important Trotskyist group and at the time operating under the authority of Trotsky himself. King notes that youth organisations “aim to attract large numbers”, whereas a revolutionary party will – barring a “mass revolutionary struggle” - attract only a few young people as such.

Organisational independence, political subordination”

Nevertheless, King rejects calls for complete independence of the youth leagues. This could imply that “democratic-centralist fractions of the revolutionary organisations should not be allowed in the youth movement if they sometimes demand democratic centralist discipline over their youth members” (Letter...iii). His preferred formula is “organisational independence, political subordination (or 'solidarity')”. This means that the youth group must have its own conferences and so on, at which policies should be debated and consensus won if possible. It may even take “some positions at variance with the adult organisation's program” (Lessons p37, my emphasis). However, the basic line would be the same.

This all is backed up with various tidbits from leftist history – Lenin calling for “complete independence” during WWI (to break the youth from the social chauvinist parties), through various Comintern resolutions culminating in the “organisational independence, political subordination” formula. He cites approvingly the Comintern's rearranging of a youth conference to ensure victory of the united front policy as evidence of the efficacy of OI-PS.

It should now be abundantly clear that this policy is essentially absurd and completely contradictory. If “political subordination” allows the adult party to rearrange conferences in order to force through votes, exactly what does “organisational independence” include? What, precisely, are the young cadres free to “organise”? How does this differ from the LFI Revo faction's unprincipled manoeuvrings? (King does have an answer of sorts to the latter question – more on which later.)

In my view, the whole gamut from the third congress of the Comintern, through the American SWP, through to the LFI's early relationship to Revo and finally King's articles all try to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, the PRN know there is no point in simply setting up a youth “trotskyist cadre” organisation and do not wish to do so. They acknowledge that the majority of younger leftists have not “come up” through traditional communist or trotskyist groups but in fact through the ever-more-influential anarchist movement, and that the battle for partyism and vanguards must be won. For this reason, they wish for the youth to keep a degree of independence. On the other hand, however, they want to have the youngsters there for them, as another layer of footsoldiers. They want the youth group to have some kind of connection to the mothership, and this means (for an orthodox trotskyist) some kind of theoretical agreement. The youth group is to be of the revolutionary party but not in it.

The aforementioned actions of the Comintern pose it all very sharply. The OI-PS model lopes on quite happily as long as the Comintern can rely on winning all the important votes. They can make a show of convincing the youth rather than handing down the line. Nevertheless, when it comes to crunch time, the crisis cannot be resolved within that framework. Organisational independence implies control over the programme, or what else are the youth organising? Political subordination implies the adult organisation “trumps” the youth equivalent, otherwise how can they be effectively subordinated? There was no middle way in this dispute, then – either the Comintern acted as it did, or the CYI declared full independence. (iRevo's denunciation of this framework as “Maoist” is more true than they perhaps think – what was the paradigmatic bit of Maoist “philosophy” but the rejection of the Hegelian 'synthesis' in favour of catastrophic conflict, one side “devouring” the other “mouthful by mouthful”iv? The OI-PS line disavows such an event but leads right to it.)


Another well-known feature of Maoism is its elevation of the struggle between political lines to a near-cosmic force to which all trifling matters of organisation, epistemology and the like are to be subordinated. King certainly does not take such a histrionic view of things, but the determining factor for him does seem to be 'political perspectives'. For instance, we have his summary of the split in Revo, its “roots of the trampling on the independence of World Revo lies in the LFI’s political perspective and tactics” (Letter). The catastrophism embodied in the LFI's line led directly to the crisis in Revo. Things would, clearly, have been much better had the LFI leadership taken a more sober view of things.

However, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks reined in the youth in the early 1920s, this was principled and within the bounds of the party/youth relationship. Why? Because the youth were arguing against the allegedly correct line of the “united front”. The principled nature of the comintern's action, then, lies in the fact that they were “right” about the united front.

No doubt there is some truth in King's analysis of the Revo split. It is a general feature of political perspectives that they form into political practices, and a specific feature of catastrophism that it leads to a dramatic tightening of the chain of command. Like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, terrified of being late, the party must subordinate all other concerns to getting the best spot on the barricades. What he seems unable to concede, however, is that comrades in Revo had no way of challenging such perspectives, and no way of forging their own, for as long as they were under the cosh of OI-PS. The choice for revolutionary youth, it seems, is to try their best to hitch their wagon to the least swivel-eyed adult party on offer, and then hope the latter don't try anything stupid as long they're in a “politically subordinate” position.

Not good enough.

A balance sheet

King's analyses have the merit of not underestimating the complexity of the issue - one of the advantages of running a bureaucratic SWSS/Student Respect/Revo style regime is that you get to cut this Gordian knot without much bother. However, his resolution of the problem essentially amounts to a theorisation of such regimes. The balance he proposes is no balance at all but a dormant volcano, which will erupt the minute a dispute erupts on which the adult party, in its wisdom or stupidity, shall give no quarter. It is a recipe for splits, but more dangerously, driving potential activists away from the movement altogether.

The only ways out of the deadlock, as I see it, are an openly cadre-based group entirely subordinate to the party programme, consisting of full party members, which has a specific remit within the party's division of labour for youth work; or cutting the organic link entirely, and using youth groups as “neutral zones” between different parties and trends who struggle openly to define everything, from strategy to tactics to programme. Whether or not party fractions act under party discipline is up to the parties themselves. This certainly does include the possibility of a “hostile takeover” by a less scrupulous organisation, but it also includes the possibility of resistance to such a takeover. The OI-PS line amounts to writing the takeover into the youth organisation's genetic code, and frustrating all attempts to break this logic well in advance.

iStuart King, “PR letter to iRevo conference on October 7 2006” (http://tinyurl.com/38pekk )

iiStuart King, “Lessons of Revolution”, in Permanent Revolution #5 Summer 2007. Also reproduced are two articles by members of iRevo and the leadership of the dissident German Revo section.

iiiHe then asks the question, “is this in fact [iRevo's] position? It should be noted that the suggestion is dismissed by iRevo as “ridiculous” (http://www.anticapitalista.com/irevo/?p=43&language=en). King himself comes much closer to this when he cites approvingly the “graduation system”, whereby youth who join the Party leave the youth section after a year or so (Lessons, p39).

iviRevo, “Declarations of Independence”, in Permanent Revolution #5 Summer 2007; Mao Tse-Tung, “Talk on Questions of Philosophy” in On Practice & Contradiction, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2007).