Thursday, 2 May 2013

Say no to revolutionary jargon

This piece was published on the IS Network website

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

In our day-to-day conversations in the IS Network, many of us are still using these words. In part, that’s an admirable effort to make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. In part, it’s a nervous attempt to affirm our revolutionary credentials, a defence against the inevitable accusation that we have “broken with Leninism” – as if revolutionary politics were encapsulated in jargon, rather than expressed (or sometimes not expressed) through it. The words are waved around like a Leninist talisman.

The trouble is, while I believe we are all committed to building a better, more democratic culture on the left, using this old language makes us sound as though we haven’t changed at all – especially when we use it publicly, to people who don’t know us and are taking our words at face value – with all the connotations they attach to them because of their own experiences on the left. This vocabulary can still sound cynical, manipulative, and to many, frightening. It doesn’t make us sound like the kind of people you’d welcome into your campaign group.

“Comrades will launch a disciplined intervention into the campaign with our propaganda in order to recruit” – on one level that’s a not unreasonable statement of something we might want to do. But say it to someone not versed in the language of Leninism and they'd run 100 miles in the opposite direction. To most people, “discipline” is something you suffer in school, “propaganda” is what is produced by totalitarian regimes and “recruiting” is what armies do. Yet the sentence has a quite benign meaning: “We will get involved in the campaign and argue for our agreed policy using our leaflets, and see if anyone wants to join our group.”

Is this a deep political disagreement dressed up as one about language? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the use of language made me overestimate at first how far apart people are within IS Network – instead of “covering up” differences, the words we use are creating the appearance of bigger differences than actually exist. Of course there is much we will need to debate over the coming months and years, and that’s to be actively encouraged – but if we are unclear with our words, we will talk past one another.

For example, some in the Network are for the continued use of the term “democratic centralism” to describe our organisational practice, arguing that what we are currently constructing is “real” democratic centralism. I believe that this term has been systematically misused for too long to be rehabilitated in this way – we’ll know what we mean, but people who don’t know us will be scared off, thinking we intend to do the same old, same old.

In truth, it seems to me that both sides of that debate are committed to the same actual practices: the most thorough democracy, elected committees, recallability, voluntary as opposed to bureaucratic “discipline” (if we must use that word – “voluntary discipline” feels like a contradiction), autonomy of local branches.

This is a very different model to that of the SWP, and a much healthier one, one much more in line with the real, historical Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the run-up to 1917. In that sense, it is “real democratic centralism”, although Lenin scarcely used the term. To continue to use such a loaded phrase, the battle cry of the left’s drop-of-a-hat expellers over all these decades, is to make a fetish of language over meaning – and to risk being misunderstood. The left is full of groups claiming to employ “democratic centralism” (and, of course, claiming that theirs alone is of a “real” or “authentic” variety) – how do we make it clear that we are not just another one?

We need to break with these linguistic holdovers from the “old party” and its internal culture. In hindsight, we were almost talking to each other in code, repeating certain phrases as a demonstration of orthodoxy. If you use this jargon long enough, you forget how it sounds to the ears of “outsiders”.

The way to create a better culture on the left is not to take those orthodox phrases and attempt to change their content. That is a recipe for talking past one another, never knowing how far someone's definition of a particular word has or hasn’t shifted. The answer is to be clear about what we actually mean, and to try to speak in a vocabulary that brings us closer to those we want to work with instead of pushing them away.