Democratic centralism and sectarianism

Tom Delargy discusses his experiences in the SWP and Militant and replies to Graham Cee of CATP

In defending his standing as a candidate on the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation list, Graham Cee described himself as both a supporter of democratic centralism and as a Marxist who does not have a party (Weekly Worker April 20). The irony of his predicament seems to have escaped him.

I know from personal experience that supporting unity in action when you only have yourself to unite with is a piece of piss: precious little danger of getting outvoted, you see. Although divorced twice from 'democratic centralist' organisations, I am hoping for third time lucky, and if that does not work out I will keep trying until I get it right.

I am not proud to admit that I wasted 10 years of my political life appealing against expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party. Towards the end of that period, one central committee member confirmed to me that I was not a member. I was also told that I should stop wasting my time appealing against my expulsion, as I would never be let back in until I sat back in the hope of being asked (at some unspecified point in the future) to reapply for membership. A few weeks before I received this message, someone claiming to be acting as the emissary of another central committee member delivered to me an exactly opposite message. I was told that, contrary to what I had assumed (assumptions made clear in my letters of appeal), I had never been expelled, but that I would be if I did not refrain from expressing doubts as to my status as an SWP member.

About the only thing these two central committee members could agree upon was that I was banned from attending branch meetings, another decision that was not explained to me nor was open to appeal. Neither central committee member was prepared to commit themselves to paper. I was now in a classic catch 22 position: if I agreed to abide by the decision of one central committee member, I would be in trouble with his colleague, and vice-versa. For virtually this entire decade, the whole of the Glasgow district had been ordered (by whom I never discovered; on what pretext I never found out) that no one was to give me the time of day. By blindly following such instructions, these people, my erstwhile comrades, effectively conspired in their own disenfranchisement.

Ten years too late, I resigned myself to the fact that there exists no mechanism within the SWP to appeal against expulsion. So, extremely reluctantly, I turned to the only available alternative: Militant. I knew that the transition would be far from painless. I had had 10 years to convince myself that I was wrong to be a 'Cliffite', but I had failed.

The SWP national secretary, so I am told, managed to move on from being a full-timer for the International Marxist Group one week to taking up the same position inside the SWP the following week. In other words, he was paid to defend the idea that the USSR was a degenerated workers' state, then state capitalist in the space of just a few days. Chris Bambery is, however, quite exceptional in this respect. Few of us can so casually jettison deeply held beliefs.

This dogged commitment to principle has been a godsend to the sects. They have been utterly reliant on our inability to shed ideological baggage with the finesse of a shyster lawyer. It is obvious why the sects' leaders have had a vested interest in crushing the open expression of doubts about any aspect of programme, strategy and tactics. Few dissidents can swallow undigested a second dollop of dogma when driven out of one group. Therefore dissidents, by and large, feel they have little choice but to drop out of active politics altogether. A very small percentage, motivated by nothing so much as bitterness, opt for vengeance. These dedicate themselves to inflicting the maximum possible damage on the group that treated them so shoddily. They do this by setting up yet another (even less viable) sect.

Alternatively they throw in their lot with rightwing forces, lashing out indiscriminately against all 'democratic centralist' groups, if not the left more generally. They become witch-hunters in the trade unions or even paid consultants for the likes of the Economic League. Either way, what is deemed to be in the narrow interests of the sect runs directly counter to that of the movement.

Determined not to let myself be provoked into becoming a renegade (like so many others in a similar position), I joined Militant. I was upfront about my disagreements with them - about the Stalinist states, Ireland, their defence of the time they spent as entryists inside the Labour Party, their justification for lying about Lenin and Trotsky believing in a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism. I was, however, prepared to make massive compromises to gain entry to a second democratic centralist organisation. I even agreed to keep shtoom about these differences.

And what was my reward? I was allowed to join Militant, but only in the sense that they were happy to take my money. For the whole year I was a member, my subs bought me absolutely no rights whatsoever. I was not allowed to participate in branch meetings or district aggregates. I was barred from the debates on Militant opting for Scottish independence and on dissolving SML into the explicitly non-revolutionary SSP. On reading Harry Paterson bleating on about his treatment inside the CWI, I could not help thinking to myself, 'You lucky, lucky bastard. What I would not give to have gotten treatment like that.' I got five years out of the SWP before I had my party rights stolen from me: Militant lacked the decency to grant me five nano-seconds.

While I have no direct experience of other 'Leninist' organisation, the word on the street is that they are all alike, an opinion evidently shared by Comrade Cee (Weekly Worker April 20). Unfortunately he has no idea what can be done to overcome the obstacles placed in our way by such bureaucratic tendencies. Bereft of any analysis, he stumbled upon the bright idea of supporting a slate - one based on the lowest lowest-common-denominator platform possible, one predestined to force one, or more, of the sects to stand candidates against it. Far from having done anything to dismantle the barriers on our path to class unity, as he claims, he has formed a bloc with Scargill's former witch-finders general, 'socialists' determined to re-erect the sectarian barricades the London Socialist Alliance has been busily junking! This is hardly the way to demonstrate anti-sectarian credentials, comrade.

Graham is certainly right about one thing. The sects do have a quite appalling history of treating dissidents with contempt, treating them like shit in fact. They have felt confident about being able to get away with such atrocious behaviour because they have us by the balls. According to their calculations, we have nowhere else to go. It would appear that they could not give a damn that they are trashing a valuable asset of the workers' movement; all that has seemed to interest them is that they have taken out an insurance policy, one which will see to it that if they cannot maintain exclusive use of our activism, we can be so damaged that none of their 'competitors' can get anything out of us either. By mobilising all their members (zombie-fashion) to psychologically destroy us, we are effectively placed under house-arrest.

They drive us back into private life as our only refuge from psychological torture. This is a situation that has gone on long enough. But it is the LSA, not the CATP, that has finally uncovered the mechanism by which Marxists can put a stop to it.

The accusation levelled against the LSA (by Comrades Cee, Taaffe, etc) that it is inherently sectarian could hardly be more mistaken. The long overdue unity of all the significant fragments of the revolutionary left is going to prove an historical turning point - one that can change everything, not just in London, but throughout the UK, sending a resonance across the planet. The experience of the rank and file of these organisations working constructively with one another, rather than abusing each other, is going to have an educative effect on the leaderships also. A by-product of this unity will undoubtedly be that their respective rank and file will be treated with a new respect. Since the entire membership will grasp the fact that leaving their respective group is no longer synonymous with walking out of the movement, the sects are going to have one almighty incentive to convince, rather than coerce, dissidents.

Out of this situation, a new attractive and genuinely democratic centralist organisation can be built, one capable of enthusing and mobilising all revolutionary socialists - robust enough perhaps to cater for comrade Cee himself. Such an organisation will prove just as capable of uniting with all honest reformist workers against the bosses, their state and the labour lieutenants of capital.

This can be achieved either by a series of ad hoc united fronts, electoral pacts and democratic forums, or by the creation of a broad workers' party, within which the Leninists can operate as a faction - like the Bolsheviks did inside the RSDLP. While Peter Taaffe is fond of counterposing an abstract mass workers' party to the LSA, the latter is (or has the potential to be) the embryo of such a formation. That is why this fragile flower ought to be nurtured with care, and why Taaffe's attempt to abort it is the height of insanity.

Comrade Taaffe has tried to justify his sectarianism by portraying the CATP as a movement of our class, contrasting it in this respect to the LSA. In actual fact, the opposite is the case. It is the LSA, not the CATP, which has taken a leaf out of Marx's writings on the Paris Commune. It is they who have understood the necessity for workers' democracy. Unlike Graham Cee and his comrades, all LSA candidates have agreed to make it impossible for them to follow one of the oldest left reformist traditions. They will not be exploiting workers' votes as a ladder by which to climb onto the gravy train.

As important (and, again, unlike the sectionalists and opportunists of the CATP), the LSA candidates have understood the necessity of making themselves democratically accountable to our class - postal workers, firefighters, carworkers, nurses, teachers, civil servants, pensioners, students and, yes, railway workers too. By contrast, those standing on the CATP list, if elected, have committed themselves to nothing.

Precisely what stance will such 'workers' representatives' adopt towards section 28 or defending asylum-seekers against racism and xenophobia? Who knows. Why do these 'Marxists' think workers do not need to be presented with an alternative to the Blairites on the issues of health, education, housing, anti-trade union laws, the minimum wage, etc?

Perhaps Comrade Cee could enlighten us.