'Class lines' against democracy

Mike Macnair takes on Ian Donovan

Ian Donovan's letter was sent to us as a response to Peter Manson's June 15 reply to Ian's previous letter "¦ We decided not to publish it in the June 22 issue or in the letters page at all, because most of what Ian writes about the Weekly Worker's editorial policy is merely a repetition of his earlier lies, and this sort of 'tis-tisn't' playground exchange can go on for ever without getting anywhere. The record on which anyone can form a judgment about who is telling the truth is in any case available in the online archive of the Weekly Worker.

However, Ian's letter also contains a striking example of some fundamental errors of the far left (not just in Britain) about democratic accountability and leadership, and about 'class lines'. So we print it here with a response on these issues.

Ian writes: "The accountability of leaders is abstractly an excellent principle. But accountability to whom, exactly? On some occasions, backward and capitulatory 'leaders' may need to be rendered 'accountable' to more militant and class-conscious elements below. On other occasions, those above may embody correct politics and greater class-consciousness. If those 'below' have a lesser level of class consciousness than the leaders, then this 'accountability' tends to act as a transmission belt for the influence of the class enemy into a working class party."

This is not an original idea of Ian's. Comrades can find it in Lenin and the Vanguard Party, written by the Spartacists' Joseph Seymour (especially p32, 1997 edition). Seymour's argument is the most systematic version available, but reflects ideas more commonplace among 'official communists', Maoists and Trotskyists, especially 'orthodox' or 'anti-Pabloite' Trotskyists. Seymour draws (without acknowledgement) on ideas promoted by Russian communist leaders in the period leading up to the 1921 ban on factions and later in the phase of the 'Bolshevisation' of the parties of the Comintern. Some of them can also be found in Joseph Stalin's Leninism (1940), though Stalin is less crass than Seymour (or Donovan).


The working class needs to lay collective hands on the means of production. It cannot do so without political democracy. As long as information and the powers of office are in the individual hands of career 'leaders', this is a form of private property in the means of production. More immediately, the working class needs political democracy in its own movements in order to take effective class action. A common decision to strike is an agreement both of the majority to strike and of the minority to be bound by the decision of the majority. Without democratic methods these agreements cannot be achieved.

Democratic accountability of leaders is thus not "abstractly an excellent principle", which nonetheless has to give way whenever an apparent immediate tactical advantage can be gained from undemocratic actions. It is both an immediate practical necessity and utterly fundamental to any serious socialist political platform.

In our 'What we fight for' column, we say that "Socialism is either democratic or, as with Stalin's Soviet Union, it turns into its opposite." This is a reminder the modern far left needs to keep constantly in mind. The project of bureaucratic 'socialism' ended in disastrous failure. It is utterly stupid to imagine that attempting to repeat it will improve the situation of the working class.

The right to make mistakes

Political democracy requires that the demos - in the context of a workers' organisation, the members - are at the end of the day in charge. That means that they have the right to make mistakes. The leaders do not get to veto the members' decisions because they, the leaders, think they know better - or even do know better: as Ian puts it, because they "embody correct politics and greater class-consciousness".

Democratic methods in this sense do not imply that the majority gets to control what everyone says or argues. This is the fundamental error committed by those - in Britain now mostly Trotskyists, including the Socialist Workers Party - who would keep 'internal' discussions secret. The underlying point is that we do not in advance know with absolute certainty who is right and who is wrong on any particular question. We have to decide on actions - like going on strike or standing in elections - and these decisions have to be binding on everyone. We do not have to decide on opinions or arguments; and criticism of the decision to strike, or the decision to stand, has to be open as long as it does not disrupt the unity of the definite action. The majority has the right to make mistakes; the minority also has the right to make mistakes.

It is for these reasons, too, that splitting - majorities expelling people, minorities walking out - needs to be a last resort and taken very seriously, however small and weak the group involved. Light-minded splitting is opposed to political democracy. When a minority does it, it is claiming a veto on the action of the majority; when a majority does it, it is repudiating in advance the possibility that the minority might turn out to be right and the majority wrong.

'More advanced leaders'

Ian writes that "On some occasions, backward and capitulatory 'leaders' may need to be rendered 'accountable' to more militant and class-conscious elements below. On other occasions, those above may embody correct politics and greater class consciousness." This idea really is 'abstract'.

There certainly may be occasions on which elected leaders and officials turn out to be to the left of their members. Ian would be hard put, however, to find serious examples of the operative rule of the capitalist class through this mechanism. He uses as an example his explanation of the crisis of the Scottish Socialist Party in terms of "lower-level" leaders transmitting bourgeois ideas against 'higher-level' leaders: ie, Tommy Sheridan. But this assumes what he seeks to prove.

His only other example is Lenin in April 1917: "By Peter's logic, Lenin should have been 'accountable' (ie, capitulated) to Stalin and Kamenev in 1917". But in the first place this is an instance of freedom of criticism. And secondly Lenin was at the time of his return to Russia neither a member of the Bolsheviks' all-Russia central committee nor an elected representative. Thirdly, what happened to the debate was not simply the imposition of Lenin's line, but that the dispute was taken to a congress: the members got to decide.

In contrast, the class rule of the bourgeoisie through the mechanism of the 'freedom' of the full-time officials and elected representatives of the workers' movement from accountability to the members is the present form of the UK capitalist 'New Labour' government. It has been a central element of capitalist rule worldwide since the collapse of the Second International in 1914-18 and the bureaucratic degeneration of the Third International. On a smaller scale, it has been the characteristic form of the political collapse of innumerable smaller socialist, 'official communist', Maoist and Trotskyist organisations.

The idea that the leaders do not need to be accountable because they are 'more advanced' is viciously circular. This circularity means that the 'more advanced' leaders are justified by faith alone or the Calvinist elect. Nothing is forbidden to them: violence in the workers' movement (the Healyites, Lambertistes and Loraites), taking money from questionable sources and allowing it to affect your politics (the Healyites and Lambertistes at least), sexual exploitation of female members (Healy and leading cadres in the Spartacists). This is, of course, merely a pale shadow of the personal corruption and violence of the Stalinist bureaucracies.

It is thus completely facile for Ian to base a political line on the slight contingency of leaders being to the left of the members, while marginalising the dominant risks involved in the 'freedom' of the elected representatives and officials. It is like arguing that because road accidents are very occasionally caused by individuals driving too slowly, therefore there should be no speed limits.

Far left

But it is not only Ian. This is the normal practice of the large majority of the organised far left, based on their ideological commitment to what they call the 'Leninist party' (though it is nothing like the Bolsheviks down to 1918). It is reflected in three ways.

It is reflected in their internal regimes, in which the leadership keeps political secrets from the membership and the organisation keeps political secrets from the class as a whole.

It is reflected in their light-minded splittism. Factions (sometimes "permanent factions" - ie, real factions) are banned and - as in the SWP - individuals are expelled for any sort of conduct which could be considered 'factional'; the powers of patronage of the leadership are deployed to skew debates. Minorities walk out rather than conduct any prolonged political fight. The struggle for democratic methods is thus subordinated to the struggle for the 'correct line'.

It is also reflected in their crass opportunism towards 'important leaders' like Benn, Scargill and Livingstone in the 1980s and like Galloway today. The question of democratic methods is always 'less important' than something - whatever it is - on which there is common ground between these 'important leaders' and the leaders of the far left groups.

'Class lines'

Ian charges that the CPGB and Weekly Worker "don't know where the class line lies". It is a charge familiar to us from SWP comrades. But it is one that has come equally from the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - who charge that we are scabbing by supporting Galloway by participating in Respect and calling for a vote for Galloway for MP, while SWP comrades (and Ian) charge that we are scabbing by criticising him.

Trotsky, who sometimes got things right, wrote in the 1938 Transitional programme that "Sectarians are capable of differentiating between but two colours: red and black. So as not to tempt themselves, they simplify reality." This is part of a very confused passage, but it tells a fundamental truth.

The SWP and the AWL (and the Spartacists and Workers Power and so on with all the "lesser fleas and so ad infinitum") share a common error of method. They fail to distinguish between mere disagreement and scabbing. It is a natural polemical temptation to accuse your opponents of 'crossing the class line': ie, scabbing. But actually scabbing means working when your union has decided that you should strike, or participating as ministers in capitalist governments which attack the working class, etc.

Applying the idea to all sorts of disagreements leads unavoidably to every dispute becoming a purity test and an occasion for a short-term split. Implicitly, it involves setting out to build a party which will be a party of the politically pure: free from (as Ian puts it) "the influence of the class enemy". But such a party of the politically pure is an illusory goal. The result is merely endless splits into ever more microscopic grouplets.

It also starts wholly from the negative: opposition to what the capitalists are right now doing. Within this framework Galloway is a lesser evil to Blair-led Labour. It is true. It is also true, however, that Blair-led Labour is a lesser evil to Cameron-led Toryism or to Campbell-led Liberalism, however much this may be obscured by the fact that Blair is right now in government. Opposing Blair from the left makes it more likely Labour will lose the next election: a point repeatedly made by Blairite ministers. It could thus quite accurately be called "scabbing" within the terms within which criticising Galloway, or Sheridan, is "scabbing".

The politics of starting from the negative thus leads nowhere. The right place to begin is with the positive: that the working class needs collective organisation and action, and thus needs political democracy. Beginning from the positive, as opposed to "drawing the class line" in every disagreement, allows us to have unity in action where there is partial agreement, combined with explicit debate and criticism where there is disagreement.

This choice is the only way out of the left's present downward spiral of fragmentation and decay.