Just a talking shop?

Do socialists' meetings have a structure problem?

September 21, 2008
3 min read

One thing that made me see a different side to the Convention of the Left – to socialist meetings in general, in fact – was speaking to the anarchists who’d come along for the ride. They were simply amazed at how unproductive our meetings were – and with good reason. ‘There’s just no structure,’ said one (somewhat ironically, I thought). ‘It’s full of political showboating – nothing actually gets organised,’ added another.

They had a point. As ever, I had to sit through hours and hours of the same old cliches to get to the interesting bits (one contributor suggested taking a tip from Just a Minute by banning hesitation, deviation or repetition – if only). As ever, people got up and flogged their pet issues to death with no regard for the topic of the meeting (vegetarianism, fiat currency, Palestine … it all gets dragged up at random). And, as ever, people made about ten ‘last points’ after the chair had told them to shut up.

Robin Sivapalan of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty praised the anarchists he had worked with while campaigning against immigration controls, and said we should learn from their methods: ‘They get things done. They show agreement and dissent collectively.’ Most socialists write consensus methods off as ‘that stupid hand-waving thing’, but consensus is a serious framework for organising practical action. In other words: it works.

If we’re talking about building the broadest possible left forums, then we should note that every socialist who spoke about working with anarchists agreed that their meetings are far more advanced and effective than ours. They have clearly set out ways to encourage participation, make plans, keep records and work through conflicts – much better than just getting a bunch of people in a room and giving them two minutes each to harangue the audience. Putting a proper structure in place moves a meeting away from being a never-ending debate and towards becoming a useful organising forum.

As things stand, we are too often obsessed with gazing at our own navels, refusing to set to do anything until we’ve checked and critiqued it for ideological purity (and damn, arguing about whether a campaign is ‘cross-class’ or not is dull). Concrete proposals are given far lower priority than discussion. Facilitation isn’t taken seriously enough (although the convention is better in this respect than most lefty get-togethers). Speakers preach to the converted when they could be building real networks and proposing united action – the decisions about dates and methods are left to party offices or individual whim rather than collective self-organisation.

Centralist methods can certainly build big demonstrations – you just ring your members up and tell them where to be and when – but they also tend to breed unhealthy organisations that fall into a rut and stop being open to new ideas. A member of Socialist Resistance caused controversy today when he proposed ‘treating sectarians like scabs’, meaning that anyone who didn’t go along with majority decisions would be vilified and abused. I can understand why frustrated activists might feel that way – but, if you ask me, we really need to look for better ways of working.


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