Subtext and loyal opposition

How far does John Molyneux's critique of SWP bureaucratic centralism go? Ben Lewis reports

“We don’t usually do this”, said leading Socialist Workers Party member John Molyneux in his opening on ‘Democracy and the revolutionary party’ at this year’s Marxism. Indeed, when comrade Molyneux spoke rather candidly of a “recent period in the SWP where it was difficult to think or write differently”, one might have got the impression that one had been teleported to another event organised by another organisation.

Such words are not exactly commonplace at Marxism, which is far more of a recruitment event than a genuine forum for discussion and debate. Differences and disagreements - of the kind which we have seen in the SWP’s recent past with John Rees and Lindsey German splitting to establish the Counterfire project - are to be fought out strictly behind closed doors. “Of course”, comrade Molyneux continued, “you had the right to exercise differences, but life would be hard.” Presumably reflecting his own experience, he added: “You might not be asked to do the session on the topic at Marxism or write the next article.”

Molyneux is, of course, no ordinary member of the SWP, as readers of this publication will be well aware. Back in 2005 he penned a critical document entitled ‘Democracy in the SWP’ and in 2006 stood against the central committee’s slate in the leadership elections on a platform of “more honesty and more balance in our political perspectives and in regard to the state of the party”, as well as a “more democratic culture” that tolerates “open debate” (see Weekly Worker January 5 2006).

It is certainly to be welcomed that he is openly talking about some of the SWP’s problems from the platform at its main annual event - as a long-standing SWP comrade put it, “We can hardly gloss over these things, can we?” The SWP’s dismissal of engagement with other left groups and the open thrashing out of differences as “sectarianism” (ironically, an approach that embodies sectarianism) means that many of their rank-and-file members are often very green when it comes to questions of party, democracy and programme. It certainly means they are ill-equipped to think independently of the dominant faction that is the SWP central committee and fight for a change in the political culture of the left as a whole.

Comrade Molyneux’s speech was essentially a shortened and popularised version of his recent article, ‘On party democracy’ (johnmolyneux.blogspot.com/2009/10/on-party-democracy.html). He described how democracy in the revolutionary party was “not an optional extra”, but “fundamental” to the working class majority reshaping the world in its own image. Unlike the peasantry, who, he argued, could smash the state but would then return power to a new ruling elite, the working class is the “democratic class”.

Comrade Molyneux quoted Gramsci to highlight another problem: the existence of leaders and followers in society as a “primordial, irreducible fact”. Related to this, he pointed out that those in positions of responsibility can often “quote better than most of you” and this can create the problem of an uncritical and unthinking trust in leaders who may not be accountable for their decisions. This can lead to an unhealthy rift between the party and the working class.

He illustrated this through the example of April 1917, where Vladimir Ilych Lenin won the Bolshevik Party away from the rightward-moving ‘internal’ leadership headed by Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev. For Molyneux, the reason Lenin was able to do this was because he lined up with the advanced workers. After all, “through struggle the workers gain confidence and understand their own power, so that their consciousness changes”. This is, of course, true. However, as with much of comrade Molyneux’s speech, it was not so much what he said but what he did not say  that was really significant. After all, another reason why Lenin was able to win the party to uphold and update the programme was that he could put across his case in Pravda and speak in public debates against Kamenev and other right-moving old Bolsheviks.

In analysing the defeat of the Trotskyist faction in the 1920s, Molyneux made a similar omission by simply tracing it to the disillusionment associated with the defeats of the German and Chinese revolutions. True, no doubt. But the very fact that at this point the opposition was prevented from organising openly because of the 1921 ban on factions was hardly irrelevant. This is truly a paradox for those like the SWP who claim to stand in the tradition of Trotskyism. The SWP opposes permanent factions and the open airing of differences. Unlike in his article, comrade Molyneux did not discuss the right to form platforms and tendencies - surely the elephant in the room.

So there was a difference between his approach to history and his approach to the SWP. Indeed, when it comes to the SWP, comrade Molyneux becomes a mere apologist. He claimed that the SWP democracy commission - a sop thrown to the membership to overcome the discontent after the Respect debacle and the way the leadership had dealt with it - “had addressed the issues in a democratic fashion”. He was proud of the SWP - “no other organisation on the left is more democratic”. He even boasted that in the run-up to the May general election there had been a “real debate inside the SWP” about who to vote for. Unsurprisingly, some comrades were dead against voting for the warmongering Labour Party without distinction (others were apparently keen on voting Liberal Democrat!). I am sure this was the case, but where did this find reflection in any SWP publication - apart from highly coded articles in Socialist Worker from CC members defending the line that Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party and should be voted for across the board? What about open contributions from those critical of this position for failing to distinguish between the Labour left and right? Nowhere to be seen.

In the discussion that followed Preston councillor Michael Lavalette seemed to suggest that things were never quite as bad as comrade Molyneux had made out - after all, the leadership is accountable, isn’t it? Debate is all well and good, he went on, but sometimes “you just have to act”. But around what politics? For him, linking the question to programme was too “abstract” - “we have lots of books” that explain the SWP’s politics, he quipped. Comrade Lavalette was disdainful of the “hostile” blogs like Socialist Unity speculating about what is going on in the SWP. The point is though, comrade, in the absence of an online internal discussion forum or the serious reporting of differences in the SWP, your own members - let alone the working class, whose interests you purport to uphold - have no other choice but to speculate on what is going on in the SWP and try to inform themselves by reading the blogs and publications like the Weekly Worker.

Comrade Molyneux scored a few easy points against a Workers Power comrade who not unexpectedly advocated Trotsky’s Transitional programme. In response he mocked the idea of clinging to a document written in 1938 which had a dramatically flawed analysis of capitalism “in its death agony”. But the insistence of some comrades that “the key thing in all circumstances is the programme” was a “fetish” - reflecting, of course, the programmophobia of Cliffism. For comrade Molyneux, the ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’ column printed in Socialist Worker every week was the basis on which people should join the SWP and hold their leaders to account. But in terms of classical Marxism and its emphasis on programme as mapping out the road to working class power, the column is woefully inadequate, to state the obvious.

Indeed, it appears to have no role in holding the leadership to account. One of its commitments, for example, is opposition to all immigration controls. But who held the SWP leadership to account for ditching this principle in Respect back in 2004? It was not only John Rees and Lindsey German, but Alex Callinicos, Martin Smith, Chris Bambery and so on.

Molyneux’s response to a point raised from the floor about the SWP ban on factions was very weak. Initially quoting Trotsky, who described the history of the Bolshevik Party as one of “continuous factional struggle”, he drew the conclusion that “on balance” the logic of “institutionalising permanent factions ... undermines the unity of the organisation”, which can cause the party to “stagnate and slow down”. How can anybody draw such a conclusion from the evidence of the April theses and the brief history of the Bolshevik Party he had just outlined? Did he really think that Lenin’s factional struggle in 1917 led to stagnation of the party and to a slowing down of the revolution? A mere 30 minutes earlier he had argued precisely the opposite.

But all this is probably indicative of the position comrade Molyneux finds himself in. The subtext is clear: the organisational modus operandi of the SWP he is defending runs absolutely counter to all that is healthy in the traditions of our movement. After all, it is hardly a secret that there were often fierce and public factional exchanges in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party - between the Mensheviks such as Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod and Lenin’s Bolsheviks; and between the Bolsheviks themselves. Nikolai Bukharin and Lenin openly fought over the right of nations to self-determination and then, of course, there was the struggle in 1917 over the need for a second revolution; there were the different factions that formed around Brest-Litovsk, etc. Such historical facts are hardly buried away in esoteric Russian texts accessible only to academics.

Not only the SWP, but the far left generally must break with what they pass off as ‘Bolshevism’ or ‘democratic centralism’, but is in reality bureaucratic centralism. Only by embracing the understanding that the open expression of differences is both healthy and necessary can we look beyond the narrow, amateurish confines of the sect towards the party outlook we so desperately need. Comrade Molyneux is posing some of the questions. But whether due to the blinkers acquired from years of Cliffism, his desire not to fall foul of the SWP regime or a combination of both, he is certainly quite some way from satisfactory answers.

As he admitted in his closing remarks, “I might be an oppositionist, but, as the Weekly Worker always puts it, I am a loyal oppositionist”. Quite.