Party notes: Socialism and the logic of sectarianism

Where does the SWP's lack of democracy, bureaucratic manipulation and thuggery come from?, asks Jack Conrad

Georg Wilhelm Fredrick Hegel - the celebrated 19th century German philosopher - remarked somewhere that “things develop from themselves”. Thoughtfully he added that they do so “according to their own logic”. A telling observation. Think about the Socialist Workers Party in this light.

Doubtless most comrades in the SWP’s leadership are utterly sincere in their desire to see socialism actualised on a global scale. An aim to which they devote an inordinate amount of time, energy and income. Those whom I have encountered at various times are educated, talented and often tireless. Many have shunned the comfortable but egotistical and essentially arid life of middle class careerism. Praiseworthy indeed, and only turncoats or the bitter and burnt out would seek to denigrate or demean anyone for dedicating themselves to the great cause of revolutionary socialism.

There exists, of course, another, less attractive, side to the SWP. Open debate is an alien concept and internal democracy a sorry sham. Serious opposition is outlawed. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Workers Power and the Revolutionary Democratic Group have their origins as expelled SWP factions. Delegate conferences routinely occur each year. They are, however, akin to company rallies for the sales staff. Members acclaim the leadership rather than hold them to account. Till a few years ago tiny pre-conference ‘factions’ did occasionally appear - around purely technical or third-rate matters. Even then they were permitted no permanent or public existence. Outside the charmed circle of the central committee just to query the latest line is considered suspect. Individuals deemed hardened dissidents are arbitrarily and wastefully driven out - sometimes after a kangaroo trial. ‘Sexual harassment’ is a favourite trumped-up charge.

The bureaucratic centralist regime of the SWP in England and Wales is logically extended to the International Socialist Tendency. Alongside the Anti-Nazi League, Spark and Globalise Resistance, the IST is jealously guarded as the private turf of the central committee in London. An unofficial but permanent and dominating faction. Shamefully Alex Callinicos has overseen the callous expulsion of whole sections in South Africa, the United States, New Zealand, etc.

The Socialist Alliance too is increasingly viewed by the SWP leadership as just another one of its fronts. And evidently that is how the SA is being treated. Its constitutional principles of inclusiveness, political balance and toleration apparently count for nothing. Four prime examples:

Where does the SWP’s lack of democracy, bureaucratic manipulation and thuggery stem from? Many explanations, mostly unsatisfactory, have been offered.

I would flatly reject the anarchist nonsense that the SWP represents the direct continuation of the method of Marx, Engels and Lenin. That is a calumny disproved by any serious study of the facts. Take the Bolsheviks - at their best they provide a model of working class democracy and open polemics.

With more solid foundation, others have blamed Gregory Zinoviev, Lenin’s lieutenant and first president of the Communist International. Zinoviev stressed the necessity of putting the newly formed, and often shambolic, communist parties, onto a war footing. He believed that direct, earth-shattering, revolutionary struggles were imminent. Then there is Leon Trotsky himself and his so-called Fourth International. In the US his leading comrade, James P Cannon, booted out Max Shachtman, Hal Draper and co simply because they disagreed with the woefully mistaken designation of Stalin’s USSR as a “degenerate workers’ state”.

Actually the SWP’s rotten practice is spontaneously self-generating. It has not been transmitted across history, generation by generation, like some awful, inescapable genetic code. The SWP’s doctrine that the end justifies the means and avoidance of programmatic commitments runs counter to classic Marxism but does empirically serve to buttress and sustain a confessional sect.

Not that every sect behaves in the exact manner of the SWP. Nevertheless from the past to the present revolutionary sects tend time and again to display a manic self-obsession in tandem with contempt for democracy. Eg, in the early 19th century the Jacobin-communist sects were typically headed by an all-powerful leader or tight-knit ruling clique which neither practised nor envisaged democracy. Mikhail Bakunin’s fantastic revolutionary conspiracies were no different. Alone the select few possessed the intellectual keys to unlock the future utopia. The masses were either ignorant, inert or easily fooled and so could not be trusted. Hence the sects put themselves first, not the real working class movement. On that basis they recruited, acted and justified themselves.

Organisations like the SWP might perhaps once have had a certain worth. The real working class movement was in the 1930s crushed under the suffocating ice sheet of ‘official communism’ and social democracy. Whatever their faults, Tony Cliff and others before him had the virtue of keeping alive some vital shoots of Marxism in the darkest hours of the century.

Yet the objective situation nowadays cries out for a revolutionary class party - its scientific name, according to Lenin, being ‘Communist Party’. Though let us underline once again that we would be perfectly happy with ‘Socialist Alliance Party’, if that is what the majority wanted. Any such party would contain within its ranks a wide variety of opinions - not a weakness, but a source of strength. Through ongoing debate a party collectively learns from the work of its militant thinkers and the invaluable experience of its class activists. Hence the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

In all probability a Communist Party in Britain will initially have to be made on the basis of the existing revolutionary left coming together. First the rapprochement of the hard factions - along with much of their baggage. But then, if circumstances prove favourable, these factions would voluntarily become mere shades of opinion. Working together for the common cause builds trust, digs roots amongst the broad masses and hopefully dissolves antiquated lines of demarcation. However a class party is conceived - and this is the main point - only equipped with such a combat organisation, which embodies freedom of criticism and unity in action, can we seriously talk about the working class realising socialism and communism.

And there is the rub. Remember Hegel’s remark that things develop from themselves and according to their own logic. While the SWP remains a sect and shuns genuine partyism, it cannot possibly help realise the social transformation its cadre ardently wish to achieve.

Socialism is the victory of democracy, the antithesis of bureaucracy and censorship. Socialism is the self-liberation movement of the working class, as it breaks through the political and economic limits of capital.

If by some freak circumstance the SWP was in the position of pushing aside capitalism or inheriting a post-capitalist Britain, the only socialism it could preside over would be an ‘elitist socialism’. Despite the ‘socialism from below’ mantra, the SWP epitomises in practice socialism from above - albeit subjectively with benign intentions.

Under its ‘socialism’ is the SWP suddenly going to undergo a Damascene conversion and display toleration towards leftwing critics and encourage the free expression of differences? Hardly. Instead capriciousness, manipulation and thought-control are inevitable. Especially if problems arise and become acute. Means determine ends and ends determine means. An absence of democracy cannot usher in democracy. Democracy can only be won through struggle. It cannot be given. Those who unleash a squad of hysterical bullies today are in the future more than likely to unleash the secret police.