Quentin Matsys ‘An allegory of folly’ early 16th century

Dumbness of dumbing down

The Morning Star’s CPB is about to enter its pre-congress discussion period. We have here, though, a classic case of bureaucratic, not democratic, centralism. Mike Macnair investigates

Later medieval urban communes in Europe originated to a considerable extent as institutions through which the emergent bourgeoisie (in its original sense, including what is now commonly called the ‘petty bourgeoisie’) could conduct practical struggles for freedom from, or reduction of, the claims of feudal and episcopal overlords. By the 1500s, however, most urban communes had been ‘captured’ by the monarchical state and by the surrounding aristocratic culture, through the roles of external state legal regulation, on the one hand, and the promotion of urban oligarchies of the ‘natural rulers’ of the (hereditary) boni homines, or ‘better citizens’, on the other.

By this means, the communes (‘boroughs’ in Britain) became ‘outworks’ of the feudal-absolutist state regimes, analogous to the ravelins and out-forts outside the main defences of contemporary fortifications. To overthrow this state regime and open the way to capitalism, both in the Netherlands and in England, it was necessary to overthrow the existing urban regimes and their urban-aristo loyalist leaders.

The working class in the last century has been affected by an analogous phenomenon. Its organisations created to defend its own interests - trade unions, cooperatives, political parties - have been captured by the capitalist state regime to serve as outworks. The basis is not hereditary ‘urban aristocracies’, but rather managerialism, under which the organisation’s managers have the deciding sway in its decision-making processes.

Unlike the feudal landlords and clerics, the capitalist class does not generally itself directly govern. Instead, it acts through agents: corporate managers and the other bribe-taking classes (lawyers, journalists, lobbyists, professional career politicians).

The working class can to a limited extent exploit the opportunities provided by elections and civil liberties under capitalism to organise its own collective political voice and action. But this is possible through freeing the creativity of the ranks, so that numbers and activity can counter the weight of money backing the bribe-taking classes and their institutions. The result is that the acceptance of managerialism in workers’ organisations gives the power back to the capitalist class: whether by handing it to the direct bribe-takers (eg, the Labour right) or by simply demobilising the possibilities of workers’ organisation down to hollow shells, which cannot effectively counter the dominance of politics by the institutions of corruption.

We have just seen an example of this mechanism in the defeat of the Corbyn movement. Hundreds of thousands hoped, through Corbyn, for a voice alternative to the stifling monopoly of the two wings of the ‘moderate’, ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’ bribe-takers. But the Labour left leaders they trusted with this hope were determined to remain within the regime of managerialism - and by doing so demobilised hope. They thus showed themselves to be part of the outworks of the fortifications of the capitalist regime.

These observations provide political context for the character of the ‘discussion period’, which is about to happen in the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. This ‘discussion’ is tightly controlled, for the benefit of managerialist control in the organisation’s leadership.


The CPB has announced that its biennial congress will be held on the weekend of November 4-5. This is already a quarter of the time the Labour Party allows for its conferences - since Labour conferences are both annual and over four days. The old German Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) held between 1890 and the later 1920s annual Parteitage conferences, each lasting seven days. The Russian social democrats before 1917 suffered disrupted events, which had to be broken off and restarted elsewhere due to repression. But the April 1917 All-Russian Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (Bolsheviks) lasted six days, the Bolsheviks’ 6th party congress in July-August 1917 nine days, the 8th party congress in March 1919 six days, the 9th party congress in March-April 1920 eight days, and the 10th party congress in 1921 eight days. Pressure of “work in the real world” was no obstacle to serious and sustained discussions …

The CPB executive committee’s main draft resolutions and amendments will be published to party organisations on July 28. They will then have seven weeks - till September 20 - to submit their own resolutions and amendments, so they “should schedule their special pre-Congress meetings during that seven-week period”. This is again a pinched period for discussion. Members will in practice mostly need a week to read and absorb the EC’s texts, reducing the number of weeks’ discussion to six; and it is always more difficult to schedule meetings in the summer, with school holidays running over the period. The schedule gives the executive, on the other hand, a comfortable five weeks (at least) to collate resolutions, and so on, coming from the branches and decide how to respond to them.

Members are reminded that under the party’s rules,

During the period of pre-Congress discussion, members shall have the right to express their views on any aspect of Party policy in their branch meeting, or at any other meeting convened for that purpose on the authority of the District, Nation and Executive Committees.

This principle restricts communication among members to officially sanctioned meetings.

The text goes on to say that “the EC shall ensure the maximum possible discussion and provide the maximum possible space in the party press for the printing of contributions from Party organisations and members”. Vague words. The Socialist Workers Party, which is pretty bureaucratic-centralist in its operation, does in its three-month discussion period for an annual conference undertake to publish three pre-conference internal discussion bulletins, in which members can submit articles of up to 3,000 words; the CPB offers merely “maximum possible” - which, given that the discussion period is already pretty pinched, does not offer members much at all.

The policy reflected is, in essence, that the membership should remain atomised, but the leadership remains in control throughout. This policy is also reflected in a second aspect of the same rule - 17(d):

Members of elected leading committees who are in disagreement with any decision taken by the committee in question or with any other aspect of party policy shall have the right to express such disagreement first in that committee and then to a higher committee. During the period of pre-congress discussion, such disagreements may be expressed first in the committee in question and then in the appropriate party branch or in communications to pre-congress discussion in the party press.

This rule is, in substance, a requirement of solidarity of the leading committee in relation to the membership. Of course, leading committee members who hold minority views can - during the pre-congress discussion period - carry their disagreement to “the appropriate party branch” or to the party press - assuming the party press allows publication and does not, for example, heavily cut or redact the communication.

A couple of other symptomatic phenomena can be found in the proposed rule changes. The Midlands district committee proposes that 5% of dues income should go to the relevant branch, and 7.5% to the relevant district or ‘nation’ (that is, Scotland and Wales, which have ‘nation’ structures under rule 12, with the same powers and structures as ‘districts’ under rule 11). The EC has an alternative to this proposal. Under the existing rule 5(c) there are to be additional voluntary contributions over and above dues raised from members, and under rule 5(c)(v) “every functioning party branch will be guaranteed a grant from the fund”, though the total of such grants is not to exceed 30%-40% of the fund’s annual income. The EC proposes to replace grants to branches under this clause with grants to district and nation committees, and to reduce the share of such grants to 20%-30% of the income of the fund.

The Midlands district committee’s proposal reflects the very common experience of trade unions, Labour and far-left groups since the development of dues payment by check-off or by direct debit, when union or party income is swallowed by the centre and the localities are practically unable to take independent action due to being starved of funds. (It should be noted that this is a labour movement equivalent of Tory controls on local government tax-raising and borrowing powers …) The EC’s proposal is to preserve the excessive centralisation of the finances, while making token gestures to local empowerment through the ‘AVC fund’.

Secondly, the EC proposes new and more limited grounds for ‘appeals’ to the appeals committee and the congress appeals committee. These amount in substance to the replacement of the right of appeal - on the ground that the decision below was for any reason wrong - with the right of judicial review: that “The investigation upon which the previous findings were made was not conducted properly, was demonstrably biased and/or clearly failed to take sufficient account of the evidence provided and any mitigating factors”; that the penalty was too harsh (not, for some reason, that it was too lenient …); or that there is fresh evidence “since arisen”.1 Even considered as judicial review grounds, missing is the case of manifest irrationality. Such a narrow set of grounds for appeal/review would, in fact, clearly promote the abuse of disciplinary proceedings by reducing oversight through appeals.


A managerialist regime of this sort has a number of practically deleterious consequences. In the first place, it actively promotes ‘groupthink’ errors and makes correcting them harder. This ought to be obvious: the organisational regime of the ‘discussion’ makes it unlikely both that insiders within the leadership will raise to the membership qualms about the collective view of the leadership, and that the views of ‘outsiders’ will be taken seriously. That is because these outsider views necessarily take the form of atomised individual interventions, and cannot be developed through the formation of platforms or factions.

Secondly, this in turn has the effect that the regime is positively diseducative. Education, as opposed to training, equips the recipient with the ability to deploy ideas critically. It does so (beyond GCSE level!) through ‘dialectic’, in its original sense: because the student is confronted with elaborated conflicting views and develops, even at a fairly low level, the ability to choose between them. Radically skewing the discussion procedure so that the ‘top table’ utterly dominates the discussion thus tends to dumb down the membership.

Equally, the leadership is saved by the procedural safeguards it is given from being politically ambushed by the membership. But this dumbs down the leadership too: losing practice at responding to being politically ambushed by the membership is also losing the skills to respond to political ambush by the capitalist class and its agents, or even merely by rival trends in the workers’ movement.

More generally, I said earlier that managerialist regimes tend either to directly give power to the bribe-takers or to demobilise the membership’s creativity, and hence reduce the organisations to hollow shells of merely paper members. The result is that workers’ organisations become out-works of the capitalist state power. The Morning Star as a paper is in itself something the working class needs: a daily newspaper independent of the advertising industry. But the paper has elected to maintain itself through - mainly - subsidy from trade unions - which has the effect that it cannot be fully independent of the trade union officials. This makes it, in turn, an out-work of the out-works.

The managerialist nature of the CPB’s narrowly pinched pre-congress discussion faithfully reflects that character.2

  1. I take it that this last is merely a confusion for the standard case of fresh evidence which has become available or been discovered since the decision below.↩︎

  2. The Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales have arrived at the same result by way of their ‘united front policy’ towards the same ‘official lefts’.↩︎