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Should we be publishing this bulletin?

Free Speech and the Constitution

Recently several members of the editorial collective of this publication received a letter from the General Secretary, Arthur Scargill, asking us to explain why we were involved in its publication when we ‘know these actions are in conflict with the Socialist Labour Party’s constitution’.

The SLP Marxist Bulletin is published within the party by a group of party members with similar political views, as expressed in ‘A Marxist Programme for the SLP’). This programme is within the broad range of views held by SLP members and constitutes one strand of opinion in the party. There are many others.

We are anxious not only to publish our views, but to discuss and debate. We want to hear from other party members who agree with the ideas expressed in this bulletin, and also from those who don’t. We have tried to engage with other publications circulating within the party – we hope they will in turn take up ideas raised by the Marxist Bulletin.

A waste of time?

The Marxist Bulletin is read by many party members who do not agree with all its content, but appreciate the opportunity for serious political discussion. Other party members are more critical. We have been told that we are wasting time and money which would be better spent building the party; we have been told that the material we publish is ‘too abstract’.

Despite these criticisms and the rather more categorical assertions of the General Secretary, we have no regrets about publishing this bulletin. In fact we believe that this, and publications like it, are crucial to building the party. Unless political programme is fully debated, we have no hope of developing as a party that can lead the working class to victory. This was a key lesson of the experience of the Bolshevik Party, as demonstrated positively in 1917, and (in the negative) of many, too many, failed revolutions since. Proper, written political discussion is an essential pre-requisite of a healthy party. The only way to develop effective party work in the unions, the women’s movement, local and national campaigns and many other areas of work is to ensure full, free verbal and written discussion of the political and organisational problems involved in all these matters.

An attack on this bulletin is an attack on the potential which this party represented at its birth; it is an attack on every party member who wants to stand up and speak, individually or as part of a collective.

We believe in democratic discussion and honesty about political views. This is not just a matter of individuals expressing their views. In an atmosphere like that of the SLP, groups will inevitably gather together, based on shared backgrounds and newly discovered shared views. We are only sorry that few other groupings (however formal or informal) are open about this.

An unhealthy atmosphere

And why not? Partly a result of the unhealthy atmosphere in the party generated by clause II (4) of the constitution:

‘Individuals and organisations other than bona fide trade unions which have their own programme, principles and policies, distinctive and separate propaganda, or which are engaged in the promotion of policies in opposition to those of the Party shall be ineligible for affiliation to the Party.’

It’s hard to know where to begin pointing out the absurdities in this sub-clause.

Party members all have their own set of political views (commonly known as a programme). In an atmosphere of political discussion views will naturally change and develop over time but nevertheless they exist. Surely all members are ‘Individuals … [who] have their own programme, principles and policies…’ We would be sad excuses for political activists if we did not.

We are currently engaged in our second national Congress, an event which includes the right for members to move motions to change party policy. Surely this involves ‘promotion of policies in opposition to those of the Party’?

And as for ‘distinctive and separate propaganda’ does this prohibit any written discussion material by a party member? It has certainly not been enforced as such.

In fact the enforcing of this clause by the current leadership has been haphazard in the extreme. Its ambiguity lies in the definition of ‘separate’. Separate from the party, or separate from the leadership?

This clause should go. At best it is meaningless. At worst, it is a gag on the rights of members to express their views, verbally and in writing.

The right to be heard

As for its companion sub-clause Clause II (5) which prohibits dual membership with other organisations, this should be replaced with something like the following:

‘A member of the party who joins or remains a member of an organisation which the party membership, as expressed through party conference, declares is incompatible with Party membership, thereby becomes liable to expulsion from the Party. Such matters will, as a matter of course be dealt with by the Party’s proper disciplinary and appeals procedures.’

We are not afraid of other organisations! The test is whether they support the aims and policies of the party.

Instead of these clauses which threaten the free flow of ideas within the Party, we must specifically claim our right to be heard. The constitution should include the following:

‘Members of the party have the constitutional right to advocate changes of Party policy on any question, and to combine together in tendencies or platforms to change Party policy or the Party leadership subject only to their abiding by the Rules, Constitution and Objectives of the Party and decisions made by the appropriate Party bodies. Only the Party Congress has the right to ban tendencies that may be harmful to the reputation and integrity of the Party, and shall have the final say in such matters.’

Sounds fair? Unfortunately the four constitutional amendments which included this clause, from Walthamstow, Exeter, Streatham and Hampstead & Highgate, were all ruled out of order, along with similar amendments from Coventry and Ealing, Acton & Shepherds Bush. What is the leadership scared of? Do they think the membership might actually vote for their right to advocate political views?

Out of order

Which brings us to the fact that 17 out of the 27 constitutional amendments were ruled out of order, many on the grounds that they ‘conflict’ with various clauses of the existing constitution. Huh? Surely a constitutional amendment, by its very nature, will ‘conflict with’ and thereby seek to change the constitution? Particularly when this is the first chance, after 19 months, the membership have had to discuss and vote on the constitution. It seems that, even now, that will prove a little difficult.

Consequently, several CSLPs moved the following Emergency Motion:

Congress notes that:

  • The large number of constitutional amendments submitted indicates a widespread desire for further discussion on our Constitution.
  • The fact that the vast majority of these have been ruled out of order on technicalities means that this full discussion will not take place at the 1997 Congress.

We therefore resolve to institute a broad discussion which goes beyond the limits of the usual amendments procedure, by means of the following:

  • The election at this Congress of a Constitution Working Party (CWP), made up of 7 members, nominated and elected from the floor.
  • The CWP is instructed by Congress to examine all constitutional amendments submitted, to take submissions from branches and individual members, and to circulate proposed revisions to the Constitution to all CSLPs within 3 months.
  • All CSLPs will then be entitled to submit amendments to this proposal, which will again be circulated to all CSLPs.
  • A delegated special conference will be held in June 1998 to discuss and vote on the CWP proposal and all amendments.
  • The constitution there adopted will from that point on be subject to the usual procedures of amendment at the annual Congress of the Party.

We can only hope that this will actually reach the conference floor.

Testing times

This Congress is a huge test for the Party. It is a test of our ability to grow, to recognise that our members come from a wide range of backgrounds, with a wide range of political views. It is a test of our ability to debate those differences as comrades, to listen to each other and to honestly tell each other where we agree and disagree. This is the road to building a party capable of fighting for socialism. If we cannot deal with our differences, we will never unite against capitalism, and if the NEC succeeds in imposing its will on the members, our party will become incapable winning the struggle for the liberation of our class.

Meanwhile, the Marxist Bulletin refuses to be ‘ruled out of order’. The objectives of the party read: ‘To abolish Capitalism and replace it with a Socialist system whose institutions represent and are democratically controlled by and accountable to the people as a whole.’ (We would say ‘workers’ rather than ‘people’ – as in the old Labour Clause 4.) In order for the Party to achieve this, we must be honest about our strengths, and our weaknesses; we must allow every member their voice; and the party itself must be democratically controlled and accountable to the membership as a whole. That is why we publish.