Bureaucratic centralism lives

The SWP democracy commission was a sop offered to a membership demanding greater democracy. But the June 7 special conference agreed only tinkering, cosmetic changes, writes Peter Manson

This newspaper has, on several occasions, pointed out that what the Socialist Workers Party needs is nothing short of a democratic revolution if it is to become a vehicle for working class emancipation. Unfortunately, however, the democracy commission set up by the SWP’s annual conference in January produced trivial tinkering.

Meeting on June 7 in London, SWP delegates voted to uphold the organisation’s existing bureaucratic centralist regime. The only marginally significant changes that emerged from the commission and were agreed by the special conference related to the organisation’s top committees and the body that considers disciplinary matters. The slate system used to elect the central committee was slightly amended and the 50-strong national committee has now been granted a degree of formal autonomy from the CC.

According to Socialist Worker, the conference “also voted to make the processes of the party’s disputes committee more transparent” - although whether this will allow members accused of breaching SWP discipline more rights is unclear (‘SWP democracy commission conference looks to future’, June 13).

In the SWP, rank and file members have no permanent means of exchanging views, are barred from coming together to oppose leadership positions, are sidelined or ostracised if they express public disagreement and are liable to be expelled by arbitrary decision of the national secretary if they step out of line.

Under normal circumstances, differences on the leadership are suppressed, errors are not accounted for (if they are admitted), and the membership has no means of either replacing leading comrades or changing the political line those comrades are pursuing.

However, none of these questions were seriously addressed either by the commission or the subsequent special conference. Yet it is not as though they have not been raised within the SWP. For example, Neil Davidson, author on Scottish political history and leading member north of the border, has summed up the SWP regime in this way: “We constantly invoke the democratic freedoms of the Bolshevik Party, but actually have fewer democratic rights than its members did under conditions of autocracy, quasi-feudal barbarism and repression” (Pre-conference Bulletin No3, December 2008). He went on: “The impulse is always to restrict the debate, or even to refuse to admit there is a debate, in case the ‘wrong’ decision gets taken - the ‘right’ one having been decided by us in advance” - the “us” being the central committee, naturally.

However, things may temporarily open up when the leadership itself is riven by divisions that can no longer be hidden. That was what occurred in 2007-08, when the disaster known as Respect shook the SWP to its very core. The SWP central committee itself admitted last year: “The split in Respect represented the worst crisis the Socialist Workers Party has experienced since the 1970s … The entire process generated big disagreements from top to bottom” (ibid).

But it was the fact that those “big disagreements” divided the central committee itself that forced things into the open. The CC decided to place the entire blame for the Respect debacle on John Rees, who up to then had been the SWP’s undisputed leader, and remove him from the CC. Comrade Rees, together with his CC allies, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, refused to lie down and the whole thing burst into the open.

At last, real and deeply felt differences and criticisms of the leadership’s undemocratic practices began to be voiced. Virtually every active member seemed to be demanding change. It was in response to what long-time loyal oppositionist John Molyneux called this “democratic upsurge” that the CC announced its democracy commission sop. The DC received submissions from the membership and recommended the changes agreed by last week’s special conference.

“Sunday’s conference reaffirmed that the SWP is a democratic centralist organisation,” reports Socialist Worker. According to a commission spokesperson, “any party committed to working class ‘self-emancipation’ cannot function without democracy”, but “there is no point having discussion unless there is centralism. Once a decision is made it must be binding on everyone.”

All this is correct in theory, but in practice the SWP operates according to bureaucratic  centralism. What form does “discussion” take in the SWP? While there may be genuine exchanges of views in some branches, individual members can only rarely raise dissenting views within the organisation as a whole. The SWP has no email discussion forum and publishes just three internal Pre-conference Bulletins where comrades can convey their opinion to the entire membership.

These restrictions on free speech were described as “preposterous” by SWP members China Miéville and Richard Seymour in the November 2008 Pre-conference Bulletin. Each SWP member, they wrote, “has every right to raise political issues and concerns and to discuss party direction directly with all members, including those who do not happen by quirk of geography to be in the same local organisation” (No2).

The comrades therefore called for a “regular, accessible” discussion bulletin as “a first step towards encouraging a party culture of increasingly open discussion”. It should be made available electronically, not restricted to hard copies, as at present. This is supposed to prevent the details of SWP internal discussion ever being seen by outsiders, but Miéville and Seymour pointed out that the inaccessibility of internal bulletins means that comrades often rely on non-SWP sources (not least the Socialist Unity website and the Weekly Worker) for their information. They declared: “The SWP must acknowledge that it is absolutely inevitable (and in our estimation a good thing) that online political discussion will take place, and will include our comrades …”

But that is not how the SWP leadership views the question. According to Socialist Worker, “There were proposals to extend the number of internal bulletins - currently three are produced in the three-month discussion period leading up to annual conference. However, the majority of delegates felt that issues could be raised in branches or by debate in the party’s existing publications.”

And which “existing publications” would they be? Since when has there been anything approaching the expression of contesting SWP views in Socialist Worker or even the monthly Socialist Review and quarterly International Socialism? The truth is, the CC does everything in its power to control what little debate is permitted. All decisions emanate from the top and in reality “discussion” is limited to the means of implementing those decisions.

The national committee has traditionally acted as a conveyor belt for passing them down the line. The CC appoints half of the 50 NC comrades, completely dominates the way the NC operates and even sets its agenda. However, the special conference accepted Michael Lavalette’s proposal for the NC to have “its own elected chair” and be able to set its own agenda “in discussion with the CC, rather than responding to the CC” (Socialist Worker June 13). However, it is clear that all the real decisions will still be taken by the self-perpetuating central committee.

Socialist Worker reports on comrade Molyneux’s failed attempt to marginally loosen the CC’s stranglehold: “The longest and most controversial discussion was over how the CC should be elected. Under the existing system the outgoing CC puts forward a recommended slate for the new CC during annual conference. This system has hardly ever led to contested elections and all agreed that it needed changing. However, members of the democracy commission had been unable to agree a new system and two competing proposals were debated.”

Comrade Molyneux argued that, while there was nothing wrong with the CC proposing a slate, delegates should be free to vote for or against individual candidates. This suggestion, while hardly amounting to a democratic revolution, would certainly have been an improvement, allowing at least some formal means of holding individual CC members to account. But the CC opposed it. The most Alex Callinicos was prepared to offer was a two-stage system: first, a “provisional slate at the start of the pre-conference discussion” to “allow scrutiny of who was being proposed”; then a final slate, taking into account any criticisms (ibid).

According to Callinicos, comrade Molyneux’s proposal would make election to the CC “depend on atomised individual decisions. It is open to becoming a popularity contest.” However, “The CC is a working group. To organise itself it has to operate as a unit. A slate system is necessary for that.”

This argument was an insult to SWP members, who are effectively told that if they opt for something beyond what the leadership recommends they are taking “atomised individual decisions” and therefore weakening the organisation’s collective capacity to operate. The existing CC, in its wisdom, is best placed to speak for the whole - not just in between conferences, but permanently

Apparently, “individual elections would produce factionalism and an incohesive leadership” - that was the view of “several delegates” (ibid). This warning about the deadly threat of “factionalism” speaks volumes about the leadership’s contempt for democracy. “Factionalism” is a code word for groups of members other than the CC itself attempting to change things.

In reality the leadership wants the membership to remain precisely “atomised individuals” without any ability to challenge the CC and even comrade Molyneux’s modest proposal to allow a tiny degree of real decision-making was a step too far. The Callinicos line was carried with 130 votes in favour, while 88 delegates backed Molyneux’s alternative.

So, despite Socialist Worker’s fine words about the commitment to “renew the party’s structures” and the “need to strengthen the democratic culture of the organisation”, the leadership cannot be replaced except by the majority of the CC itself.

While in theory delegates can elect a totally new CC at national conference, as comrade Davidson pointed out last year, “… this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership-in-waiting capable of challenging the CC” (Pre-conference Bulletin No3, December 2008).

In fact the absence of democracy in the SWP is directly linked to the organisation’s opportunist practice - one cannot be cured without dealing with the other. Unhindered by any programme, the SWP leadership needs to be free to flit from one position to another without any theorisation or the risk of being held to account.

For the SWP leadership, principles are dispensable. What matters above all is relating to ‘the movement’ in order to win recruits - a method that reached its nadir with Respect. Decisions on SWP policy have been and remain the exclusive property of the leadership - the role of the membership is to unthinkingly yet enthusiastically mobilise for the latest ‘great opportunity’. This whole practice is entirely antithetical to democracy and accountability.