The procedural is political

We must learn to recognise both bureaucratic and legalistic manipulation, writes Mike Macnair

A widespread approach to decision-making procedures on the left is one which 'legalises' procedural issues. This suits the labour bureaucracy and the officials of workers' organisations as against those of the membership. And behind these, 'legal rights' games lie the interests of the capitalist class.

To begin with some examples, ranging from large to small:

Procedure and politics

Many leftists think of procedural or 'constitutional' issues as being a diversion from the 'real politics' of substantive economic and social issues. The SWP leadership is attempting to persuade anyone who will listen that the split in Respect is really a left-right split.

Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty agrees (against the judgment of some other contributors to the AWL's website).[6]  Leon Trotsky argued: "A party regime has no independent self-sufficient meaning. A party regime is a derivative magnitude in relation to party policy." And again: "A political line predominates over the regime."[7]  The second of these quotations has become dogma for the organised Trotskyist movement. It was originally written in 1937 in defence of the Cannon leadership of the US Socialist Workers Party against its internal critics and has been used ever since in defence of bureaucratic centralism.

This approach is profoundly mistaken. In the first place, if we are to appeal to Trotsky, he also wrote in 1928 that "All questions of internal and international policy invariably lead us back to the question of the internal party regime"; and that "A change in the internal regime of the Comintern is becoming a life and death question for the international revolutionary movement." Both these quotations are from the section, 'The question of the internal party regime', in The Third International after Lenin.[8]

If we are forced to choose between Trotskys, we should prefer the fighter against the degeneration of the Soviet state to the promoter of 'Trotskyist' bureaucratic centralism. The whole section could be profitably read by anyone who believes that "a political line predominates over the regime".

SWP members and leaders would benefit particularly from reading it: de te fabula narratur (the story is told about you - Horace): see yourselves in the mirror. The story Trotsky tells of the ban on factions, the usurpation of power by the apparatus, false unanimity, the top-down promotion of the obedient, the political expropriation of the ranks, and the loss of the party's ability actually to mobilise its members for its political purposes, could be reprinted with the names changed to SWP names and still tell a true story.

Secondly, the argument that "a political line predominates over the regime" is internally contradictory - and not in a dialectical sense. Trotsky was, and Trotskyists are, advocates of a 'democratic centralist' party, as opposed to a loose federation; and of a republic of soviets (workers' councils), as opposed to parliamentarism. But both choices are no more than choices about 'party regime' and 'state regime' - ie, about procedures for collective decision-making. You cannot coherently, or even dialectically, but only in Orwellian doublespeak, say that the party question or the question of soviets versus parliamentarism is a first-order issue of political line, but opposition to bureaucratic centralism is merely subordinate to political line.

Thirdly, advocates of the view that procedural and 'constitutional' issues are second-rate questions claim to be Marxists and Leninists. But this view is flatly opposed to the actual political practice of both Marx and Lenin. Dip into Lenin's Collected works for the period down to 1917, and you will see how much effort he put into constitutional and procedural questions. Reread (or read for the first time) Lenin's State and revolution or the arguments by Marx and Engels on which it is based - especially The civil war in France, but also the polemics with the Bakuninists and the Lassalleans, or Engels' critique of the draft Erfurt programme. Most of this material is available free online at the Marxists Internet Archive. You will find that it is the Trotsky and Luxemburg of 1904, not Lenin, and that it is Bakunin, not Marx and Engels, who thought political, 'constitutional' and organisational forms were unimportant.

Fourthly and fundamentally, the economic and social issues themselves are at the end of the day issues about who decides and how the decision is taken.

Every serious strike, and every withdrawal of capital - like the flight of the owners and managers of food stores from New Orleans at the time of hurricane Katrina - should remind us that "no man is an island entire of itself" (Donne). Our everyday life constantly depends on the actions of other people who work in farms, food transportation and so on, to give only the most obvious example.

In other words, our lives are already collective and socialised. Capitalism is a means by which we collectively delegate critical decisions in social affairs to capitalists, and a procedural form through which they take these decisions on the basis of a body of social rules which gets called 'the market', 'economic rationality' or - for Marxists - 'the law of value'. We delegate these decisions to the capitalists by simply putting up with them running society and by not creating alternative procedures for collective decision-making.

The result, of course, is substantive decisions which are in the interests of capitalists generally or of particular groups of capitalists who happen to have paid out the largest bribes (sorry, 'political donations' or 'fees to counsel') recently, and which are opposed to everyone else's interests. Examples are the invasion of Iraq or the gradual privatisation of the NHS. But in order to get rid of this problem we need alternative ways to take collective decisions without the capitalists and 'the market'. And alternative ways to take decisions are, at the end of the day, merely procedural forms.

We have collectively tried out one set of procedural forms: the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. It does not work. That is why the USSR collapsed. We therefore need to work out procedural forms alternative both to capitalism and to the dictatorship of the bureaucracy. This is, in fact, not merely a first-order political question. It is the first-order political question, the question of questions.

Different substantive answers to questions like the Iraq war or the NHS, within the framework of 'the market' and the existing nation-state order, without offering alternative procedural forms for social decision-making, lead merely back to accommodation to 'neoliberal' capitalist rule: witness what has happened to the Brazilian Partido de los Trabajadores or to Rifondazione Comunista. But rerunning Stalinism on a smaller scale, as the SWP leadership has chosen to do, will not even lead to the return of the USSR, but merely to endless splits and the political impotence of the left.

'Good labour movement practice'

Many comrades on the British left have spent much of their political life in the Labour Party; most of us are trade unionists or have trade union experience; even the students and ex-students will generally have been involved in the political life of the student unions (a form of state-sponsored cooperative) or in the pseudo-'trade union' built on the student unions, the National Union of Students.

These organisations all work with a broadly common decision-making pattern. It is characterised by two features. The first is direct election of officers. The second is that the decision-making procedures at meetings and conferences are governed by rules which have a character analogous to law: the chair has a duty to enforce the rules and the meeting is not sovereign. Indeed, disaffected members can appeal to the state courts by way of judicial review of decisions which are irregular, reached by an 'unfair' procedure or ultra vires - beyond the constitutional powers of the meeting.

Before recent changes to increase bureaucratic control, and in the more democratic bodies remaining, this framework provides a means for quasi-democratic decision-making. Members, groups of members, branches or affiliates, as the case might be, can submit any motion they choose to meetings, provided they do so within the deadline. Others can then submit amendments to the motions (again within a deadline). Everything submitted will appear on an agenda, if it is not ruled out of order on one or another ground of inconsistency with the rules. But the chair and secretary in a local organisation, or at national level the conference arrangements committee or standing orders committee then arrange compositing, list motions in an order they choose, and so on.

These decisions have a profound impact on the likelihood of a motion succeeding. In the first place, there are almost invariably more agenda items than the time available, so that the order of the agenda determines which items will even be discussed. Secondly, a commonly accepted rule is that if there are two or more inconsistent motions or amendments, the passage of the first taken causes the others to 'fall' and not be voted on. The result is that by listing the chair's or CAC's preferred motion or amendment first it is possible to prevent the meeting seeing the level of support for alternatives.

Bureaucratic centralism politically expropriates the membership. This was blindingly obvious in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and is equally obvious in, for example, the SWP: the appointment and employment of local full-timers by the centre creates a patron-client chain or apparatus faction; the members receive only such truths as the apparatus faction chooses they shall hear and, for the rest, lies; the powers of the central committee are used by the apparatus faction to pre-empt the appearance of any organised opposition by expulsions, etc; the occasional use of violence against dissidents creates an underlying threat to keep the rest in line.

Variant forms have been recorded for Gerry Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party and its International Committee of the Fourth International, James Robertson's Spartacist League/International Spartacist Tendency and so on.

As a result, many ex-members of bureaucratic centralist groups have come either to anarchist conclusions or - in Britain - to the conclusion that the way forward is the 'good practice' of the British labour movement.

The Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance and Respect have all used variants of 'labour movement practice' in procedure. The same is true of the micro- 'Socialist Alliance' mark three. The comrades of the Democratic Socialist Alliance have not offered a systematic theory of their alternative to the CPGB's conception of democratic centralism: merely a negative critique which accuses us of being just another bureaucratic centralist group.[9] But their positive constitutional proposals - directly elected officers, elaborate constitutional procedural rules - are another variant on 'labour movement practice'.

But this procedural practice also politically expropriates the membership. It is just that it does so in ways that are less obvious than bureaucratic centralism. It does so because it is derived, in a variant form, from capitalist political practice.

In the preface to his ABC of chairmanship the trade unionist, arch-bureaucrat, witch-hunter and later director of public companies, Lord (Walter) Citrine, makes the point clear. He says: "I have consulted most of the authoritative works, including Erskine May's Parliamentary practice, Palgrave's Chairman's handbook, Gore-Browne's Handbook on joint stock companies, Courtenay Ilbert's Manual of procedure of the House of Commons, and several old books, among them Smith's Handy book of public meetings ..."[10]

The direct election of individual officials and the system of procedural rules are two sides of the same coin. This coin is 'the rule of law' and 'the separation of powers'. In 'labour movement practice' the membership are politically expropriated by the same means by which the mass of voters are politically expropriated in universal suffrage capitalist constitutional regimes.

How the 'rule of law' serves capital

The modern capitalist 'rule of law' state form was created by trial and error out of elements drawn from Roman republicanism and elements drawn from the 'feudal constitutionalism' of Magna Carta and similar instruments. In each of the original bourgeois revolutions it was found to be necessary to have bulwarks for the defence of property rights and creditor claims against the plebeian masses. The first element was the 'single person': the stadtholder in the Netherlands; Cromwell and later the restored monarchy in England; the federal presidency in the US; Bonaparte in France. This aspect is copied in later bourgeois constitutions in preserved or restored monarchies and in elected presidencies, and in corporations in the persons of the managing director or chief executive officer.

In modern politics the principle is also expressed in the demand of the capitalist media that there must be a single directly elected 'leader' of every party, and the attempt to run elections as plebiscites on the virtues or vices of this individual. The 'single person' serves to insulate the state bureaucracy from immediate subjection to the elected representatives.

The other side of this coin is the 'rule of law' and the creation of formal written constitutions, from the 1653 Instrument of Government, through the US constitution and successive French constitutions, to modern constitutions generally. The 'rule of law' is an ideological form; but at the end of the day it expresses the primacy of property-owners' interests in security of property, guaranteed in all the bourgeois constitutions and bills of rights, and in predictability of judicial decisions.

This political form is specific to capitalist rule because the capitalist class is the first ruling class in history whose claims to take the social surplus are grounded solely on capitalists' ownership of the means of production and money, without claims to direct rights over other people grounded on personal status (the free citizen's ownership of slaves, clerical standing, lordship). As long as the state is committed to guaranteeing property rights, it is committed to the rule of capital; and the 'rule of law' guarantees that commitment.

The 'separation of powers' is part of this commitment. What is fundamentally involved is the separation of the judiciary as the oracles of law from the other branches of government. This separation is materially grounded in the income of the caste of lawyers from legal fees paid by property owners. This income enables the lawyers and hence the judges to oppose the state core or the majority in the legislature. But it is formally enabled by the separation of the legislative power (parliaments and other elected bodies) from the executive power (monarchs and presidents and the bureaucratic-coercive state under them)e. The point is that the elected legislature is permitted to act only by making general rules: it is then for the executive to decide how to implement these rules and for the judiciary to interpret them.

Both the directly elected presidents, etc and the elected representatives are in possession of a quasi form of property right in their offices: a term of years absolute, to quote the Law of Property Act 1925 section 1 (1) (b). They are not removable during the term: even if provision is made for recall, it is usually impracticable. The term therefore functions within capitalism as an exploitable property right: that is, that the president or legislator sells his or her vote. In the imperialist countries these transactions are rarely transparent: rather, the official does favours for particular capitalists, in return for which they contribute to his or her re-election, in return for which ... and so on.

The result of this combination is that the state is responsive to the capitalist class as such and to particular capitalists. The relationship of forces within this class is expressed in the relative ability to bribe officials and to pay legal fees. Thus, just as shareholders have votes proportional to their shareholding in the company, property owners within the state's territory have an indirect voice in the state proportional to their property holdings and income (a point made by Tom Paine's 1776 analogy of government with a joint stock company).

The system of the rule of law and separation of powers thus functions to politically expropriate the large mass of the voters. The only choice voters are given is to which corrupt politician to lease an office. In the direct election of presidents, and in first-past-the-post, single-member elections, the choice is even narrower, since the only meaningful choice will be between the two candidates, or parties, capitalist financial and media support has previously selected as having a 'real chance of winning'.

This characterisation offers a little historical theoretical elaboration, but the fundamental points are not original. They were diagnosed by Marx and Engels.[11]

A labour movement copy

'Labour movement practice', described above, follows the general pattern of the separation of powers and the rule of law. There is an elaborate constitution, and a separation between the conference as a legislature and the national executive - often overtly so-called. The conference takes policy resolutions, which are the equivalent of legislation. The constitution and the procedural forms make for a 'law' which sets limits on its action. The directly elected officers, and the elected executive committee members, are not recallable, but like presidents and MPs have a quasi-proprietary 'term of years'.

There is one significant omission. Though labour movement constitutions often provide for a 'judiciary' in the form of a disciplinary tribunal, there are no permanent judges or lawyers specialised in labour movement disciplinary proceedings. The private property and money is not there to support such a practice. When push comes to shove, however, and some capitalist or part of the state is prepared to back the dissident with legal costs, recourse can be had to the capitalists' courts and lawyers. Witness Shaun Brady's dispute with Aslef in 2004, or the recent use of counsel's opinion to decide the UCU debate about boycotting Israel.

The direct election of officials has exactly the same effect as it has in capitalist presidential elections. It sets up the individual official as having a direct mandate which entitles them to disregard majority votes. It effectively prevents recall, since it would be necessary to assemble a nationwide majority. And it forces a choice between evils, like Chirac/Le Pen in the French 2002 presidential elections or endless recent trade union elections. Where the internal life of the labour movement has become really politically important, moreover, it allows for the most effective use of capitalist control of money and media to put in place their chosen candidate or candidates. Witness numerous interventions of the capitalist press in trade union elections in the 1960s and 70s, and the intervention of the capitalist press in support of Tony Blair in 1994.

The 'rule of law' form of labour movement constitutions, in other words, acts to subordinate the membership to the capitalist class and the capitalist state - through the political monopoly of the union and party leaderships, the independence of the bureaucracy and the rule of the bourgeois courts, just as the voters are subordinated within the bourgeois state by analogous means.

If we ask why the British labour movement adopted the 'rule of law' approach to its procedures, the answer is fairly simple. The original craft unions emerged out of artisan guilds, which were organisations of the urban petty bourgeoisie. Moreover, the 'rule of law' regime was utterly dominant in 19th century British politics. Many trade union leaders were - until they were forced to accommodate to the idea of a Labour Party - ideologically committed Liberals and Tories.

Labour as it emerged began as a Lib-Lab appendix to the parliamentary Liberal Party and went on, in 1914-18, to distinguish itself as a state loyalist party. Authors and leaders like Citrine were part of this political milieu. For them Labour was a lobby group within the framework of capitalist rule. It is entirely unsurprising that they should create political forms which serve the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.


Bureaucratic centralism starts with the 'Bolshevised' communist parties. That means that it starts with a fetishism of 'leadership' and of an unthinking discipline and of the role of permanent leaders. The 'labour movement practice' alternative is more liberal in character, but at the end of the day starts with the 'rule of law', which means the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The alternative is to start from a different place. Not from the rule of law, but from extreme democracy and the sovereignty of the electors: which means, within the labour movement, the sovereignty of the members, and the sovereignty of meetings of members and of conferences of members or their delegates.

This starting point will not yield a large body of fixed rules. What it yields is principles. We should elect in such a way as to make it possible to recall. That means under present conditions electing a collective body as a committee, not electing individual officers who can set up their mandate as a bar to change, like John Rees in Respect. It also means that comrades should not attempt to veto elections by insisting on the committee or delegation being constituted in a certain way, as SWP comrades and supporters did in Tower Hamlets Respect and as comrades Spencer and Pearson did in the June CMP conference.

Meetings should be conducted so far as possible to enable the meeting to take clear, and clearly understood, political choices. That means not formalism out of Citrine or other textbooks of chairmanship 'labour movement' style, but a careful effort to see that the issues are properly before the meeting. We should endeavour to give as much advance notice as possible of proposals (we in the CPGB have been at fault with this in our own organisation in the recent past). But it must also be the case that proposals, including electoral proposals, should be amendable from the floor to reflect the course of the discussion, not merely formal amendments taken. This too is something for which the SWP in Tower Hamlets deserves condemnation.

In fact, what the SWP was doing with the argument that the alternative slate was too late was the same as what the Labour Party leadership was doing with the removal of the right to put 'contemporary motions' to Labour Party conference: setting up rules as a mechanism to secure bureaucratic control.

Comrades have to be willing to be in a minority. This proposition applies as much to present majorities - like the SWP in Respect - as to present minorities - like the DSA in the CMP. The sovereignty of the membership implies that differences should not be hidden from the membership, either by pre-emptive strikes (like the SWP's expulsion of Hoveman, Ovenden and Wrack, but also many other cases in the SWP since 1977) or by diplomatic fakery which pretends there is agreement when there is not, like the September 22 Respect NC.

It also implies that minorities should get to present their point of view and should if possible be represented on leading bodies. The point is not the right of the minority: it is the right of the membership to have the minority's input, in order for the membership to have the clearest possible discussion.

Willingness to be in a minority has another implication, which concerns 'packing' meetings. CPGB comrades repeatedly made the point in connection with the Socialist Alliance that if the SWP had a majority there was nothing undemocratic about the SWP turning out members to vote its line through, as long as the SWPers had paid their dues. Even if SWPers were individually not usually active in their local SA, they were still active round the goals of the SA, and if the SWP had a majority, it had a majority. We objected to what the SWP did with its majority, not to its having a majority.

The same applies to Respect. When 'community leaders' turn out their supporters to vote down the SWP, as long as their dues are paid and they turn up to the meeting, this is not undemocratic. It is always possible that at the meeting they will change their minds about how to vote.

In contrast, when the SWP insists that Student Respect branches should be entitled to delegates on the basis of the number of people signed up at freshers' fairs,[12]this is anti-democratic. What is going on is multiplying the votes of (some) actual members by fictitious members. The fact that, as SWPers have argued, this was the basis on which Student Respect obtained delegates in 2006 does not in the least alter the case: the fact that people or organisations have acted in an anti-democratic way in the past is not a reason to do so again, any more than if you were caught burgling my house you could raise as a defence that you had burgled my house last year without being caught.

These are merely a few points which have been posed specifically by recent debates. What is more important is the underlying principles. Procedure matters; taking procedure seriously is not a diversion from 'real politics'.

If we start from the fetishism of leadership and the dictatorship of the bureaucracy, we end with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie when our 'Soviet Union' (or our SWP or WRP) collapses. If we start from the 'British labour movement practice' based on the 'rule of law', we also arrive more or less rapidly at the dictatorship of the bureaucracy immediately connected to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The right starting point is extreme democracy, and with it, the sovereignty of the membership. If we take the sovereignty of the membership seriously, we will fight against both bureaucratic and legalistic manipulation - and find a way to a real political alternative to capitalist rule.


1. See the discussion in the New York Times October 19: www.nytimes.com/2007/10/19/washington/19health.html.
 2. See, for example, Graham Bash, ‘Unions capitulate to Gordon Brown’ Weekly Worker September 27.
 3. ‘Bleak white paper’ Weekly Worker November 1.
 4. Peter Manson, ‘After his Moscow, Rees faces his Waterloo’ Weekly Worker October 25; a detailed, partisan account is available at Liam MacUaid’s blog: http://liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2007/10/17/respect-must-survive-expanded/.
 5. Patrick Presland, ‘Frayed tempers and mischievous motions’ Weekly Worker June 28.
 6. Leader, ‘The political reasons for the division in Respect’; and Alex Callinicos, ‘What’s behind the crisis in Respect’ Socialist Worker November 10; Martin Thomas, two brief articles, together with other views, at www.workersliberty.org/node/9503.
 7. ‘The groupings in the communist opposition’ (1929): www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists/archive/trotsky/1929/03/commopp.htm; ‘On democratic centralism and the regime’ (1937): www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/xx/democent.htm.
 8. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1928/3rd/ti07.htm#p2-11.
 9. Letters Weekly Worker at various dates between March 22 and October 11 2007; comrade Spencer’s article in Marxist Voice No3 (September 2007).
 10. (1943) piii.
 11. H Draper KMTR Vol 1, book 1, chapter 13.
 12. ‘Respect and student delegates’, posted November 13 on www.socialistunity.com.