Bureaucratic centralism and ineffectiveness
The split of the John Rees-Lindsey German Left Platform from the Socialist Workers Party has generated a small round of discussion on the party question in the left blogosphere, writes Mike Macnair. But what is missing is a recognition of the need for Marxist unity
The Left Platform split, amidst complaints of a new restrictiveness in the Socialist Workers Party’s regime and a sectarian turn, is not that important in itself: a small number of comrades have taken a step away from partyism towards ‘movementism’. Rees and German can hardly be regarded as principled actors in this affair, and their claim that the SWP’s bureaucratic centralist regime has dramatically and qualitatively changed for the worse is obvious rubbish.
But even if the Left Platform split is unimportant, the question it poses is this. The SWP way of doing things is mirrored in rather less grotesque forms in the Socialist Party in England and Wales and in more grotesque forms in many smaller left groups. The recent substantial split in the International Marxist Tendency and in recent years and on a smaller scale splits in Workers Power (Permanent Revolution) and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (the Commune) provide examples from a very long and lamentable history. Is there an alternative to this way of doing things?
SWP and split
The basic bureaucratic centralist institutional forms of the SWP regime - ie, the central appointment of district organisers, the secret character of internal discussion and the ban on ‘permanent factions’ and ‘factionalising’ outside the pre-conference period - were adopted by the International Socialists-SWP under Tony Cliff in the 1970s. They were copied from the US Socialist Workers Party and the ideas of James P Cannon, and justified on the basis of ‘Bolshevisation’.
Their adoption marked the end of a period of splits in the SWP which had given birth to Workers Fight (now AWL), Workers Power, the Revolutionary Communist Group (aka Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism), the short-lived Workers League (later International Socialist Alliance) and others. The new regime prevented big splits by pre-emptive expulsion of dissenters as soon as they attempted to contact other people or spread their ideas. In effect, the latest split is a merely the latest operation by the SWP Kremlin (central committee) to cut off debate before it really gets going, through provocations, to which the Left Platform have responded by walking out.
The culture which naturally goes along with these institutional forms is one of hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality.
In the external world the result of the political degradation of internal life and education is that the organisation’s existence and ‘leading role’ becomes its only real purpose: to be attained by bureaucratic top-down control of fronts and by bureaucratic alliances in which ‘the party’ can pose as ‘the left’ for internal consumption without actually fighting for any concrete political positions. The resulting control-freakery inevitably produces a gradual growth of cynicism, demoralisation and demobilisation among everyone involved who is not either an SWP member or employed as a trade union or party full-timer.
Rees and German were slightly junior to the original creators of the SWP’s institutional forms and political culture, but they were full participants in its operation, and the Respect debacle - which centred on the personal role of John Rees - was in a sense the moment at which the unreal group-think came up against reality and its unreality was exposed.
A minority went over to George Galloway. The majority of the SWP, including the Left Platform, preferred to cling to the group-think idealisation of the role of their own organisation and its history. They could not deny that the outcome of Respect was a defeat for their project, but the only explanation they offered was Alex Callinicos’s obviously false group-think idea that it represented a shift to the right by George Galloway - allegedly part of the same process as Bertinotti dragging Rifondazione Comunista into the Unione government coalition in Italy. Not even SWP members could wholly self-deceive to the extent of buying this as an explanation, and John Rees was the obvious scapegoat for the defeat. Since then, as Peter Manson explained in last week’s paper, Rees and his supporters have been looking for a more or less dignified way out of the SWP.
SWPers who have intervened in the blogosphere discussion argue that the negative aspects of the internal regime of the SWP have been overstated, Rees and German got what they deserved and so on. This is trivial. More importantly, they are driven to some extent to recognise the negatives. And they certainly recognise them in other groups. But they argue that we just have to put up with them - either as unfortunate consequences of objective dynamics, or as negative side-effects of the necessities of effective organisation.
At its most brutal this idea is expressed in Mark P’s comment on Louis Proyect’s blog: “... A problem with your line of argument, Louis, is that there has been no shortage of attempts to build socialist groups with less ‘centralist’ structures, including those that reject democratic centralism and those that keep the language but do regularly publish their internal debates. I am unaware of any of these groups being notably more successful in growing than, say, the British SWP. It’s the ISO rather than Solidarity which has grown over the last decade.” Or, put another way (as I have heard it said by SWPers), ‘You can criticise our organisational methods when you’re as big as we are.’
On the other hand, the SWP’s critics have in common the belief that the character of the SWP regime and the endless splits flow from sectarianism. (We in CPGB share this view, but our interpretation of what sectarianism means is so different from the modern, standard leftwing interpretation of the word that the point needs to be flagged here before substantive discussion.)
The SWP’s critics also commonly reject the idea of the ‘Leninist vanguard party’ in favour of something both politically broader and organisationally looser: an attempt to organise the whole of the left, not merely the whole of the Marxist left, or the whole of the workers’ movement (but without the pro-capitalist right wing of that movement, which is assumed to be somehow outside it). And an attempt to do so on the basis of ‘network’ and less centralist forms of organisation.
The problem of this view is that what it leads to - under the conditions which have prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union - is the abandonment of anything but unorganised commentary from the standpoint of Marxism. Because it insists on broad unity as a panacea for Marxist disunity and the bureaucratic rule in the groups, it refuses to confront the actual strategic political differences in the broad, mass workers’ movement about the state, nationalism and political democracy. The result is the drag to the right - like Rifondazione.
If comrades were to look their line squarely in the face, it implies the policy of the Communist Party of the USA of promoting the ‘left’ in the US Democratic Party and promoting the Democrats against the Republicans; and in Britain, it implies an unorganised ‘soft left’ in the Labour Party (and ultimately the course of the British Eurocommunists, who liquidated their party to become hangers-on of ... Blairism).
There are, of course, arguments from Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders in favour of the institutional forms of the ‘Leninist combat party’ - basically, arguments constructed in the early 1920s. At this time the Bolsheviks were engaged in building a state out of a peasant war against landlordism, and had to construct a collective Bonaparte or ‘man on horseback’ to represent the peasants against the landlords by mastering the peasants’ resistance to giving up their surplus.
Meanwhile, the ‘centrist’ leaders - Kautsky, Martov, the Austro-Marxists and so on - were using arguments for broad class unity and the defence of democracy, meaning the liberties of the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, against Bolshevik ‘terrorism’ and ‘adventurism’. At the end of the day, these arguments boiled down to a policy of lending political support to the global war against Bolshevism and for the ‘restoration of order’, which the capitalist states were conducting and which capitalist politicians and media internationally, including the pro-capitalist leaders of the broad workers’ movement, certainly understood as a ‘hot war’.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Bolshevik leaders produced arguments in favour of a violent military centralism, mitigated only by the congress, as the basis of party organisation. As the revolutionary movements in the west were defeated, the Bolsheviks also emphasised their own unique strengths as against the defeated western left. And in the process - beginning with Lenin’s Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder - they constructed an almost completely fictional origin-myth, in which the military centralism created in 1919-21 was represented falsely as the direct continuity of Lenin’s 1902 What is to be done? and the decisions taken in the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. After Lenin’s death, the historical myth was only emphasised and re-emphasised in the leadership’s struggle against Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’.
However, apart from ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ and ‘Marxist-Leninists’, defenders of bureaucratic-centralism do not use these arguments. Some of the better educated SWPers are no doubt aware that the origin-myth has been disproved and that the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) down to 1919 functioned in ways totally unlike Tony Cliff’s image of it and equally unlike the institutions and culture of the SWP and similar organisations, and therefore do not want to venture into these waters. Others simply have no real knowledge of the history of their own movement. Either way, the arguments they advance are practical ones about the present situation, rather than theoretical ones about the history of the movement or the inevitability of a future revolutionary crisis.
The first positive argument is that a centralised ‘Leninist’ party (or parties) is necessary to mobilising forces in broad mass campaigns. ‘Christian h’ comments on Louis Proyect’s blog that “there’s a reason why so many movements appear as fronts of democratic centralist groups: it’s because those groups do have the organising power to get things done.” ‘Noel’ on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity blog remarks, in relation to the London Social Forum, that “History might also tell you that to put on an event for 25,000 activists across Europe meant working with the GLA and Socialist Action, something none of us were expecting to be so, ah, fraught … it was a choice between trying to deal with that as best we could or not doing it at all … there was no way the ‘opposition’ could have done anything ...”; and ‘Salman Mirza’ says that “… the majority of calls, emails around things like UAF, volunteers needed for leafleting picket lines, stop the closures campaigns, etc are from the SWP”.
This line is a half-truth. The half that is true is important. Without means of collective decision-making for common action and an agreement that decisions for common action are binding, the multifarious efforts of individuals run into the ground. If there are 57 varieties of left groups in Britain, there are 570 varieties of single-issue campaigns, most of them creating absolutely negligible impact on national or local politics, and 5,700 varieties of leftwing ‘independents’ with even less collective impact.
The half that is untrue is equally important. Collective decision-making mechanisms for collective action long antedate the ‘Leninist combat party’ form. Single-issue campaigns go back at least as far as the campaign against the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th century, trade unions emerged from the differentiation of the craft guild tradition between masters and employees over the same period, and so on. It would be ridiculous to suggest that because these organisations and movements had no ‘Leninist combat party’ they were ineffective.
Also before the ‘Leninist combat party’ form emerged, pre-1914 France and Germany had broad-unity socialist parties. Britain had Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party, the impossiblist Socialist Party of Great Britain, and so on. In terms of the ‘level of agreement on fundamentals required for practical common action’ according to SWP supporters (and SPEW supporters) the pre-war British organisations look more like the British far left today. Guess which form was more effective for practical political campaigning: the British or the continental?
The reality is that the bureaucratic-centralist groups dominate decision-making in broader organisations not because the groups are indispensable to decision-making for campaigning, but because the groups form coherent minorities, while the ‘independents’ are scattered - the same mechanism which allows a single shareholder with, say, a 30% minority to dominate a corporation. The issue has been studied at a more general theoretical level by Moshé Machover.
It follows that the strength of the bureaucratic-centralist left groups in broader organisations is not because bureaucratic centralism is actually essential to effective campaigning. It is merely an effect of the fact that the bureaucratic-centralist groups are (currently) larger than any alternative form. The issue therefore has no independence of the argument I cited earlier - the simple point supporters of the SWP (and SPEW, and so on) argue, that their relatively large size proves the success of their organisational forms.
Don’t meddle with the big guys
At a certain level, if we take this argument seriously, it reduces to absurdity. None of the groups are anything like the size of the Labour Party or has achieved anything comparable to the gains it achieved for (sections of) the British working class. So it should follow that none of us (SWP included) has any right to criticise the organisational forms of the Labour Party. We can go further than that. The Tory Party is and always has been larger than the Labour Party. So ... The biggest organised international political organisation in the world is the Catholic church. So perhaps the far left should adopt papal infallibility ...
Oops. It has. That was where we started, with the organisational forms of the SWP. In Cliff’s lifetime these worked from the infallibility of Tony Cliff, backed up by the Vatican (the central apparatus) and the centrally appointed bishops (the district full-timers). Since his death it has worked from the infallibility of the central committee, which has to remain monolithic (hence the need to drive out Rees and German).
Louis Proyect in his post on the topic suggests that bureaucratic-centralist groups can get up to a few thousand members but then get stuck, unable to progress further to real mass influence. One of the commentators remarked that, if so, the advice to the far left should be to build groups like the SWP, but then break with their organisational forms when you get to a few thousand members …
Comrade Proyect’s argument is another half-truth. A few thousand is certainly the usual maximum size of such groups both globally at present and on average across the history of the workers’ movement. But the Italian far-left groups in the 1970s got considerably bigger, and of these only Lotta Continua had a ‘loose’ structure. The Iranian Fedayeen at its height got up to tens of thousands - while retaining the structural and political forms of a far-left sect. And, of course, the fully-Stalinised ‘official’ communist parties were thoroughly bureaucratic-centralist, if - outside of the USSR itself - they were less inclined to pre-emptive suppression of dissent, leadership bullying, etc, than the SWP. But they were mostly (including the old CPGB) a lot bigger than any of the far-left groups. Hence (in part) Andy Newman’s conversion to ‘official communism’.
Moreover, what happens to far-left groups that get up into the mid-thousands is not usually to get stuck and stay there at that size for a prolonged period of time. Rather what happens is that they explode. Once you are up into the mid-thousands - let alone above - you repeatedly confront political questions for which the distinctive theoretical positions of Cliff-think, or Grant-think, or Moreno-think, or whatever, do not prepare you. What you need is a summary political programme identifying the organisation’s strategic, long-term goals. This can both orient members facing new tactical choices and identify the common political ground that members share, even when they disagree about major political questions like bussing in Boston (which blew up the large US Maoist groups).
The other aspect of the half-truth is that far-left groups commonly start out with the intention to do better on the ‘democracy front’ than the ‘official communist’ parties. The International Socialists, the predecessor of the SWP, grew from around 200 in 1966-67 to around 1,500-2,000 (real members, not paper members) in the mid-1970s. It did so on the basis of a highly open organisational regime. I can personally remember ISers in 1974-75 criticising the excessive centralism of the International Marxist Group. More recently, the IMG has been their usual ‘object lesson’ of how allowing ‘permanent factions’ destroys an organisation. Bureaucratic centralism develops with the growth of the full-time apparatus.
This history - not the history of tactical nous or of ‘real work in the class struggle’ - is the real reason why the SWP is big. In the late 1940s there was a Trotskyist organisation in Britain called the Revolutionary Communist Party. It split into several fragments of varying sizes. By the mid-1960s the largest was Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (later Workers Revolutionary Party). Second largest was Cliff’s Socialist Review group. Third was Ted Grant’s Revolutionary Socialist Group (Militant, the predecessor of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal). The IMG was a micro-group of adherents of the European Fourth International. In the 1970s all the groups grew very dramatically, albeit unevenly; but the relation of forces between them did not change.
Since then the number of small groups has multiplied, and the relation of forces has changed. It has changed because the WRP imploded, the IMG broke into fragments (Socialist Action, Communist League, International Socialist Group) and Militant split and the Taaffe wing split again. It has not changed because of the relative success of the organisational forms of the SWP and similar organisations. Their size is no more than their inheritance of their long history, their organisational forms are no more than the (indirect) inheritance of Stalinism.
We’re splintered because we’re small
A very widespread view both among supporters and critics of the SWP’s regime is that these phenomena are regrettable, but result inevitably from the small size of the far-left groups and their isolation from the ‘real mass movement’. Perhaps if the right means were adopted of integrating yourself in the broader mass movement the phenomena would be overcome. Perhaps (SWPers are apt to argue) we just have to wait out the current downturn in the class struggle and put up with it.
Both arguments are nonsense. In the first place, very few of the organised left groups are ‘classic sectarians’ who reject participation in trade unions and mass campaigns in favour of street-stall propaganda. Organise a broad campaign, demonstration or electoral coalition, organise a strike support group or network: most of us will be there (to the extent, of course, that we have the forces). Secondly, integration in the mass movement has in no way been an obstacle to sect-building: look at the multiple, competing left groups within the Labour Party (fewer now that there were, of course); look at the collisions between the projects of different groups in the trade unions.
Secondly, big upturns in the class struggle do not drive the left towards any more effective unity than it achieves already through campaigns, strike support activities, etc. The rising tide lifts all boats, as happened across Europe and in North and Latin America in the 1970s. If anything, the rise in the mass struggle tends to drive towards splits and the multiplication of groups, as all political choices become sharper and more urgent.
Thirdly, at a time when the bourgeois press is dominated by allegations of Gordon Brown bullying Downing Street staff, it is ridiculous to suppose that bureaucratic centralism is a prerogative of small, marginal political groups. To repeat my characterisation of the SWP’s culture above: hiding differences in the central leadership from the membership, secrecy more generally, degradation of the education and political culture of the ranks (since education means developing the ability to make your own informed decisions), a top-down organisational approach, arrogance of the full-timers and permanent leaders and bullying of other members, a tendency to marginalise dissent by ad hominem smears on the dissentients, and, as a result, a growing dominance of a group-think which diverges further and further from engagement with reality. Isn’t this also a characterisation of New Labour (and, for that matter, of the Tories in Thatcher’s later years)?
We are not splintered because we’re small; we’re small because we’re splintered. The ability to construct unity in the parties of the Second International and - for Britain, the US and a few other places - in those of the Comintern - was not a result of a favourable objective situation: the favourable objective situation can exist without producing unity. It was the result of a will to unity, of concrete decisions to fight for unity on the basis of definite political projects.
The questions of the objective and subjective causes of bureaucratic centralism and unprincipled splits, and the argument that isolation from the mass movement is the real cause, leads naturally to the question of the alternatives offered by critics. Louis Proyect offers merely a negative critique of ‘Zinovievism’. Other critics of the SWP’s party regime offer a more or less common response, though the tactical details vary. What is needed is a broad mass party.
The theoretical basis of this proposal I have just criticised. It is ‘We’re splintered because we’re small’: the idea that the only way the Marxist left can unite is to unite with the broader left - whoever this broader left is be - trade union officials, Labour MPs, ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalists of one sort or another, greens, liberation theologists - take your pick.
Within this party ‘revolutionaries’ may form unorganised trends or even semi-organised platforms, but should not form ‘democratic-centralist’ groups, which tend to ‘place the interests of their group above the interests of the movement as a whole’.
‘Placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’, according to these comrades, is the essence of sectarianism. Surprising as it may at first sight seem, supporters of the SWP agree with them ... and so would supporters of a great many ... sects.
The ‘formal source’ of this concept of ‘sectarianism’ is in the English version of the Communist manifesto. The passage is famous:
“In what relation do the communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties.
“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
“The communists are distinguished from the other working class parties by this only:
1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”
In point 2, the reference to “the movement as a whole”, the German Marx and Engels wrote was: “dass sie in den verschiedenen Entwicklungsstufen, welche der Kampf zwischen Proletariat und Bourgeoisie durchläuft, stets das Interesse der Gesamtbewegung vertreten”. Here “the movement as a whole”, the Gesamtbewegung, is the ‘movement’ in the sense of historical process as a whole, the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to communism. It is not the ‘movement’ in the sense in which we speak of ‘the workers’ movement’ or ‘the trade union movement’ in modern English.
Sectarianism and bureaucratic centralism are quite genuinely two sides of the same face. That face is not, however, separation from the mass movement or ‘placing the interests of your group above the interests of the movement as a whole’. It is the refusal to unite for common action at the maximum possible level at which unity is possible. The essence is an unwillingness to be in a minority: either from majorities which drive out minorities by bureaucratic means for fear that they might just win if the discussion was allowed to go on, or from minorities which walk out in order to pursue their own projects free from the ‘fetters’ of working with the majority round common ground. Both factors seem to have been at work in the Left Platform split from the SWP.
That was then
If the Communist manifesto supplies - falsely - the ‘proof-text’ for comrades’ definition of ‘sectarianism’, the First International and a highly artificial interpretation of the Second supply the practice which is supposed to go along with this orientation: uniting with reformists (especially with trade union leaders) on a minimal political platform, in the hope that this will produce a mass party within which the ‘revolutionaries’ can fight for their ideas. The First International was just such a ‘broad movement’. (The Second was not: the German Social Democratic Party began as a unification of left groups on the basis of a formal programme, and only afterward acquired a trade union base; the French and Italian parties began as unifications, but the trade unions in those countries remained separate syndicalist organisations; and so on.)
But something has changed since 1870. It is a change analogous to that which took place during the rise of the capitalist class in the late medieval to early modern period. Then, the city communes - originally the bourgeoisie’s instruments of class struggle against the feudal lords and kings - were captured through concessions and turned into instruments of the late-feudal absolutist state. From around 1870 the capitalist class and its state began to pursue the same policy in relation to the trade unions and - more gradually, with stops and starts - in relation to the broad workers’ parties. Extensions of the franchise, in Germany partial inclusion of the workers’ organisations in social security arrangements, and so on ...
It is for this reason that the ‘broad workers’ party’ idea fails. The capitalist class has integrated an element of the workers’ organisations into its state arrangements. This fact finds political expression among the dominant section of the workers’ leaders in nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism - and forms of top-down, bureaucratic control to force through pro-capitalist policies.
The result is that the ‘broad workers’ party’ is doomed either to fail - because there is already a ‘broad workers’ party’, like the Labour Party - or, if it succeeds, to recapitulate the path of the Labour Party to serving capital, as has happened to the Brazilian Workers Party. In neither case does it provide a road out of bureaucratic centralism and sectarianism.
The workers’ movement is really faced with a fundamental political choice: between nationalism, class-collaborationism, constitutional loyalism and bureaucratic control on the one hand - represented by the actual mass workers’ parties; and class-political independence, the international solidarity of the working class as a class, and radical democracy in the state and in the movement on the other - represented, most imperfectly, by the far left. The path of ‘broad’ unity with class-collaborationist and nationalist bureaucrats as a precondition for unity of the Marxists is therefore a path which unavoidably leads to the abandonment of Marxist politics (class independence, internationalism, democracy) to create or preserve a unity which is in reality under the dictation of the capitalist state.
Breaking with bureaucratic centralism and endless splits is not a problem of changing the objective situation of the left. It is a problem of changing its subjective ideas about organisation and its political culture. If we achieve unity of the Marxist left our ideas will begin to impact on the broader left. If we do not achieve the unity of the Marxist left and an end to bureaucratic centralism, the result will be endless further splintering and even more pronounced ineffectiveness.
- See ‘Oil slick divisions’, February 11.
- ‘Left Platform throws in the towel’, February 18.
- A Read The world on fire: 1919 and the battle with Bolshevism (London 2008) tells the story from an anti-communist, journalistic perspective, but effectively brings out this point.
- Lars T Lih Lenin rediscovered (Leiden 2006) is the most recent and most systematic discussion.
- Trotsky’s The Third International after Lenin and The Stalin school of falsification narrate this part of the process. The result is a tendency among some Trotskyist critics of SWP-style bureaucratic centralism to blame this set of practices simply on Grigory Zinoviev - when any study of Lenin’s Collected works for the period or of Trotsky’s own How the revolution armed shows that both men played a central role in the development of the new party order.
- Slave trade: A Hochschild Bury the chains (New York 2005) and M Macnair, ‘Abolition and working class solidarity’ Weekly Worker March 15 2007; trade unions: RA Leeson Travelling brothers (London 1979).
- DS Felsenthal, M Machover The measurement of voting power (Cheltenham 1998); and on decision-making in communist society see www.zcommunications.org/collective-decision-making-and-supervision-in-a-communist-society-by-moshe-machover (2009).
- A point made in one of his posts by ‘Splintered Sunrise’: splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com
- M Elbaum Revolution in the air (London 2002).
- Except in the limited sense that the 1875 Gotha unification of the German socialists came at the right time to catch the massive expansion of the German working class at the same period.
- For all the faults of the Gotha programme, criticised by Marx and Engels, it was well to the left of the programmes on offer by the British left as the basis of unity today.