Platforms, tendencies, factions – call them what you will – exist in all organisations, not just in political parties. Sometimes they are suppressed (by the controlling and usually undeclared, leadership faction, of course), sometimes they are tolerated and occasionally they are welcomed.

This article argues that not only are platforms inevitable, but that they are necessary for the healthy development of an open, democratic party. To illustrate the points, we will use our own platform, the Republican Communist Network (RCN), as a case study.

Differences of opinion are inevitable

In our opinion a genuine socialist party would welcome all shades of socialist opinion into its ranks (otherwise it remains a sect rather than a party). This openness and the uneven political consciousness within the working class means that differences of opinion within a socialist party are inevitable.

Platforms can be thought of as seeking to express these differences in a coherent and organised manner in much the same way as a socialist party seeks to organise socialists in a coherent manner within capitalist society (as opposed to remaining as isolated individual community and work place activists, or voters).

It goes without saying that if platforms are a necessary feature of any open democratic party then those platforms themselves must operate in an open and democratic manner. For example, platform members should declare themselves as such when operating within the SSP, in debates and in seeking election to any position. This is standard practice among RCN platform members.

Testing ideas in open debate

There is no need for anonymity within the SSP with its relatively democratic culture: on the contrary, the RCN advocates open debate among and between platforms and individual party members as being the strategy most likely to develop effective policies for the party. Each platform naturally hopes (and, perhaps, believes) that its ideas and theories are the ones best suited to the challenges the party faces. Testing each other’s ideas out in open debate is an excellent way for us all to learn and develop.

One reason that platforms are suppressed is that they may present a threat to the controlling faction, ie, they are seen as a ‘leadership in waiting’. This is not a role the RCN has any desire to pursue. There is a further role which platforms fulfil – a role the RCN is deeply involved in – the generation of ideas, theory and tactics. A party whose ideas ossify is doomed. A party which loses the capacity to be self critical has no business asking our class to entrust its fate to that party. Mistakes will be made and these must be learned from – quickly if events are moving rapidly. Herein lies the strength of having several platforms with variations in theory and recommendations for practice.

All species contain within their gene pools various subsets of genes which do not appear to have any current use but which come into play during changes in the environment and allow the species to evolve. Just as the competing genes are tested out in the real world of upheavals in terrain and climate, so our party should have a number of ideas that are constantly being tested against real world events. Not only do we need to have a variety of ideas but we need to know what these ideas are and we need a mechanism for evaluating these ideas as events unfold. This is why the RCN concerns itself with constitutional matters relating to platforms and democratic rights and with building links internationally at a rank and file level. A party of thinkers, with a democratic culture, is a party best placed to negotiate the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, to learn and grow.

How to think, not what to think

Another role the RCN seeks to fulfil is an educational role. A hallmark of some organisations/groups, not only of the Left, is the tendency to train new members in What to Think. Educationals are presented as, ‘Here is the script – go and learn it’. We believe it is much more important to train members How to Think. This means exposing members to controversy and debate; encouraging rather than discouraging debate; and seeking out alternative styles of discourse.

Of course, to get the best out of such exercises it helps to know as much as possible about what participants mean by certain words and phrases and this relates back to an earlier point about the need to be upfront in relation to membership of platforms.

Some platforms measure their success in terms of recruitment. It is perfectly natural to want to recruit but aggressive recruitment as a tactic tends to go hand in hand with the What to Think educationals closely related to the What Way to Vote performances at Conference. There are obvious long term dangers for the party where any platform, especially the dominant platform, adopts the Winning the Vote rather than the Winning the Argument philosophy.

So many factions see debate as a continuous bludgeoning exercise to assert the superiority of their particular line. Yes, sometimes there are real differences that need to be aired and real principles that need to be upheld. However there is also the possibility of a new higher level of understanding arising from debates which involve a number of different points of view or experiences. This is what the RCN wants to achieve in the SSP.

The RCN starts from the position that all SSP members are comrades, brothers and sisters. There may be particular actions, or lack of actions, which we will criticise individuals for quite strongly, but we do not enter into the debate on ideas with a disparaging dismissal of other party members, just because we disagree with some of their politics.

Iain Robertson for the Republican Communist Network