Signs of an awakening

Calls for internal democracy within the Socialist Workers Party can only be welcomed. Peter Manson reports on the third and final 'Pre-conference Bulletin'

After the drabness of the first two Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletins, a number of surprising but nonetheless highly positive contributions have appeared in the third. These publications, also known as Internal Bulletins, are supposed to prepare for the annual conference (in 2012 to be held in London over the weekend of January 6-8), but are normally dominated by routine central committee exhortations and deadly dull branch reports about how many Socialist Workers have been sold and new members recruited.

IB No3 has its fair share of both those, but there are also several interesting, often critical, documents sent in by rank-and-file members, either individually or together with their fellow-comrades. Leading the way is the submission entitled ‘Party democracy in an era of revolution’ from eight comrades from Cambridge, London, Oxford and Edinburgh. For reasons of alleged security, only the first names of contributors are given, and two of the eight that stand out are “Neil” from Edinburgh and “China” from North London. This document’s style appears to be that of Neil Davidson, author on Scottish history and a leading SWP figure based in Edinburgh. And I doubt if there is anyone apart from comrade China Miéville, the fantasy-fiction writer and pro-democracy critic, with that first name in the SWP (or perhaps in north London).

Hot on the heels of this first piece are those from “Paris (Manchester)”, entitled ‘A contribution to the debate on democracy and the party’; “Matthew (West London)”, who writes on ‘Dissent and democracy’; “Jules and Luke (Merseyside), and John (Central London)”, whose article is headed ‘On party and class again’; and finally “Justin (Cambridge)”, who writes about the SWP’s ‘Democratic deficit’.

Comrade Davidson et al explain their aim in writing their submission: “What we seek … is to open a genuine debate on party democracy at conference - not in the form of the CC position, which is posed in a ‘take it or leave it’ basis; but by exploring the different options which might enhance party democracy and, through it, our ability to act effectively.”

This link between democracy and effectiveness is a common theme among all the above submissions. The eight themselves refer to the absence of a thriving internal democracy as one of the “structural limits to growth” - a reason why “our ability to recruit and retain membership beyond an upper limit of between 6,000 and 7,000 people remains unaddressed”. (It ought to be pointed out that the above figures are those for “registered members”, the majority of whom are made up by those who have signed a membership application form within the last two years, irrespective of whether they are ever heard of again. The actual SWP membership is a fraction of that.)

According to “Matthew”, “What exists now is very little healthy debate about how the organisation functions and its ability to make the sharp turns required, as the crisis deepens and the space opens up for the left to make its biggest impact for a generation or more. This has resulted in two splits in two years …” While “Jules, Luke and John” contend: “Only when socialists are setting an example of openness and democracy … can the case for the necessity of socialist organisation be taken seriously by wider layers of activists and militants.”

For “Paris”, “the issue of the internal party culture and the party structures that inhibit the development of a healthy, vibrant democracy is … a pressing matter. The rising tide of working class struggle on a global scale not only creates the opportunity for us to address this in a serious way: it makes it an absolute necessity.”


It is unfortunate that “Neil”, “China” and co begin their piece by making an enormous concession to SWP’s bureaucratic-centralist practice: “We accept that the current leadership and organisational structure may have been necessary in the initial period of the downturn, but is it credible that the same model could possibly have fitted every situation, every turn in the class struggle since then?”

But the “leadership and organisational structure” is one chosen by the CC in order to uphold its own bureaucratic control. As “Jules, Luke and John” state, there is a “culture of substitutionism” that has been “apparent throughout the party, in the weakness of many branches, the dominance of full-timers appointed by the CC, the manner in which the CC have functioned as ‘caretakers’, making all the key decisions on the basis that (for whatever reason) the rank and file are deemed incapable of doing so - with the effect that, at best, the party’s internal regime resembles a ‘managed democracy’.”

In fact, the SWP’s bureaucratic structure and stultifying culture - including the deliberate clamping down on genuine debate, the marginalisation of critics through the selection of speakers at conference, party council, etc, the arbitrary expulsion of opponents deemed to be a threat to the current CC - go hand in hand, and they can never be justified.

However, comrade Davidson and his comrades soon get on the right track. They write: “Democratic and open debate … is the only way to arrive at conclusions that can be tested in practice. The current set-up almost guarantees that this will not happen.” Therefore, “we believe that discussions should be openly conducted in the party’s publications - we are not a sect and have nothing to fear from showing our audience and potential membership our ability to discuss these questions, while intervening wholeheartedly in the class struggle. To do so should be treated as a sign of our strength and maturity as an organisation.”

“Justin (Cambridge)” concurs: “There is nothing wrong with comrades questioning or disputing the official party line openly, even outside the party, provided that those who disagree make it clear to outsiders that they are putting forward their own view, not that of the party.” For the comrade, “To put forward differences, even just of nuance, can help clarify the issues for everybody, bring us closer to the truth in our analysis, and combat dogmatism by helping all comrades to deepen their understanding. In fact, even if comrades are wrong, they have a right to make incorrect assessments, as this encourages them to develop the confidence to arrive at more sophisticated arguments able to challenge the ruling class.”

But, far from encouraging such a culture, the current leadership does all in its power to smother it. “Justin” reports: “I was told by a comrade at the end of our pre-conference aggregate … that one of the reasons he did not want me to go to the conference was because he could not ‘trust the way I would vote’ … Is this how a democratic organisation works, or a bureaucratic one?”

Faction ban

Another means by which the CC ensures that its bureaucratic grip cannot be effectively challenged is through the ban on factions - in other words, on any group of comrades other than itself coming together to discuss an alternative platform or policy. This is partially relaxed during the three-month period prior to conference, but even then all documents for circulation must be submitted to the CC. During this period a temporary faction may be formed “by producing a joint statement signed by at least 30 members of the party” in order to campaign against “a specific party policy or a decision … of the party”. However, “Permanent or secret factions are not allowed” (SWP constitution).

However, as Neil Davidson and comrades point out, “A faction … involves an act of opposition, in effect to the CC, since the NC [the 50-strong national committee, whose agenda is always set by the leadership] has not yet demonstrated that it is capable of either revising or producing alternatives to CC proposals.” In fact, “At the point where [new policies] are being considered, every proposal is surely a factional one - including those emanating from the CC - until conference decides.”

This is a big problem, the eight comrades contend, because it prevents the proper airing of alternative platforms. Yet “Even a CC composed of Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Cliff [!] could not be expected to grasp the essence of the period and the necessary strategy and tactics without institutionalised input and control by a membership rooted in the class.”

While “Neil”, “China” and the rest are content to point out the problem, others come up with concrete proposals. In the case of “Matthew” they are both tentative and clumsily expressed. He advocates: “Extending the faction period at present to a period from three months to one of four to six months, with the view in the long run to extending the freedom of members to faction, with the view to the admittance of factions all year round.” However, “Jules, Luke and John”, quite correctly, do not think democracy should have to wait: “Permanent factions to be allowed with all the rights that implies (ie, allowed to publish and distribute faction material among the membership). Communication across the party to be allowed, with space in Party Notes to be given over to debate and presentation of alternative views.”

Another target for the eight is the anti-democratic method of electing the central committee: the notorious slate system, whereby comrades may only propose and vote for the entire CC rather than its individual members. As the eight correctly point out, “voting for the leadership individually, by whatever mechanism, would not, of course, preclude the CC presenting a suggested slate, so members happy with their judgement could vote for all those candidates”. But “the current set-up of a slate-elected CC composed overwhelmingly of full-timers and limited pre-conference tolerance of factions skews the relationship far too heavily towards the central body”.

As can be seen, comrade Davidson and co tend towards understatement - partly, no doubt, because they believe that is probably the best way to gain a hearing, and partly because of their loyalty to the SWP. Such loyalty, which appears to be shared by the other proponents of democracy, is no bad thing, since there are many good comrades and traditions to be salvaged from the current monstrosity and it will require a patient struggle to transform the SWP into part of the answer, instead of, overwhelmingly, part of the problem.

But “Paris” pulls fewer punches in his/her critique of the SWP regime and championing of genuine democratic centralism: “I believe we must return to Lenin’s conception … Democratic centralism can be best summed up as complete freedom of discussion, with absolute unity in action … Only an organisation where controversy is the norm, where different ideas are argued out, and where comrades are encouraged to develop their ideas and test them can develop a serious revolutionary cadre.” Therefore what is needed is the “creation of a quarterly internal bulletin, open to all comrades”, and “the opening of the party press to key arguments within the party and class”.

Comrade Paris turns to the founder of the International Socialists/SWP, Tony Cliff, to back up this case. S/he quotes Cliff’s Trotsky on substitutionism (1960) - ie, before the SWP guru did a complete U-turn on such questions: “all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day, in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership.”

For comrade Paris, this “indicates clearly the kind of internal party culture that should exist: namely one of continual debate and discussion … In any socialist organisation, a wide variety of views could, and should, exist. Accordingly, around any key question, different tendencies will start to develop. The right of the minority in that situation to organise in order to become the majority is central to Lenin’s conception of the democratic centralist party. Currently within our party, this right is severely restricted.”

“Jules, Luke and John” echo this: “Democratic centralism means full debate before collectively implementing the line decided by the majority. Though most minorities/factions would clearly be episodic, such a democratic culture also means - as established in the Bolshevik tradition - the possibility that the minority might become the majority.”

Paris also proposes that political differences within the leadership “should be openly acknowledged, with the debates open to the party. Different political tendencies should be represented on the CC, not suppressed behind a veil of ‘unity’.” Finally s/he identifies a key piece of the jigsaw: “Development of a party programme” - the CC rejects the very idea, knowing that the existence of such a document would both reduce its ability to engage in opportunist twists and turns, and provide a means by which it could be held to account for its actions. A programme would “not only serve to give greater clarity to the party’s strategy,” says Paris, “but also to stimulate serious discussion, creating ownership over the party’s direction and politics”.

All of this is very much to be welcomed, in that the battle for democracy within the sects is an essential corollary of the fight to create what our class really needs: a single, democratic-centralist Marxist party. It is “Justin (Cambridge)” who pinpoints this other missing piece of the jigsaw: “A bigger SWP, while desirable, is not the answer. The party we need must have tens of thousands of members and enjoy the support of millions. It is wrong and sectarian to put any extra few hundred recruits before working in every way we can to win such a party. In my opinion we should be looking to merge our forces with other Marxists rather than seeing them as rivals or pretending they don’t exist.”

Build the SWP

But that is not part of the CC’s sectarian plans to ‘build the party’ - by which it means itself alone, complete with crippling bureaucratic defects and suffocating culture.

IB No2 claimed that the SWP’s “registered membership” is 7,127, but the CC’s financial report in IB No3 paints a rather different and more realistic picture. A table is published showing that since January 1 2009 there are 2,010 new ‘members’ old enough to set up a direct debit, yet only 542 of them (27%) pay membership subscriptions. So, as usual, states the CC, “In the first three months of 2012 we plan to launch a new subs drive. We hope to ask every member who is paying subs to raise them and to ask those not paying subs to start.” (Note the word, “hope”. Not only do most ‘members’ not pay dues: a good proportion of them cannot even be contacted!)

The CC reports: “This year’s subs drive, which took place from January to March 2011, was the most successful in a decade.” However, “As has been the pattern in previous years, membership subs have since declined … This decline is only partly counteracted by the recruitment of new members (who typically join on lower levels of subs).” Surely there is a connection here with the SWP’s ridiculous membership (non-)requirements.

This “open recruitment” enables the leadership to continue boasting of growth, although most actual members know the disheartening reality only too well. The SWP is at best stagnating - and CC exhortations to branches to activate more of their ‘members’ produces only disenchantment. Many comrades can do no more than bemoan the situation. So “Dominic (Merseyside)” correctly states: “In this period we should be recruiting massively.” He goes on to add: “One of the reasons for hesitancy in recruitment, I think, is the experience of the anti-war movement, where despite high levels of recruitment the party failed to grow and may even have shrunk in size.”

“Sabby (Central London)” also expresses what everyone knows: “recruitment to the SWP has been problematic”. But he is not entirely convincing about why: “A major reason for this, I believe, is the cynicism towards all political parties .… It should not surprise us that half of the new recruits are students. The young are the least tainted with the cynicism towards political parties that affects older folk.”

No doubt there is an element of that. But those comrades who have located the problem in the SWP’s appalling internal regime, combined with its ‘us alone’ sectarianism (which it shares with almost the entire left), are nearer to putting their finger on the problem.

Nothing could better illustrate this sectarianism - ie, the SWP’s total prioritisation of recruiting to itself over and above advancing the cause of our class - than its cynical attitude to the fronts it sets up. Of course, the leadership always tells the members that these fronts are, or have the potential to be, important weapons in the class war, within which the SWP works alongside many other forces. But in reality the last thing it would do is approach other left groups to work unitedly alongside it.

Clearly the CC has now recognised the sad reality that its Right to Work ‘united front’ has been a dismal failure (although it goes without saying that it does not put it quite that way). Claiming that the campaign’s launch was “motivated by the growing economic crisis and was part of the attempt to pull together networks of resistance”, it confesses that a “full-blooded implementation of the perspective around Right to Work was never achieved. This was for a number of reasons - some internal to the SWP, the main driving force behind Right to Work.” This is a reference to the factional battle fought around the need for a “united front against the recession” by deposed leader John Rees before he walked out almost two years ago.

As a result, “A slowness to establish local groups quickly meant that anti-cuts campaigns came into existence without Right to Work established on the ground … had RTW existed already, it could have played a role alongside the emerging anti-cuts groups ... In most areas, rightly, comrades have got stuck into building anti-cuts groups. But this obviously ‘choked off’ the possibility of establishing local Right to Work groups … what we effectively have is a national campaign with limited local ‘legs’ on the ground.”

So what was the point of trying to create a campaign “alongside the emerging anti-cuts groups”? Why not try to link up with RTW’s rivals in helping to provide those groups with political focus and organisational cohesion? Once again, the SWP’s narrow sectarianism rules out such a possibility.

But, despite the RTW flop, there is good news: “With a major shift in the struggle towards workers’ action, the Unite the Resistance initiative is well placed to help pull together the ‘fighting elements’ in the trade union movement and draw wider forces behind it. This new situation means that, for the SWP and many of those forces involved in Right to Work, workers’ action and Unite the Resistance take on a central importance.”

In other words, RTW is to be put on the back burner - not that the CC would ever say it that candidly. After all, “the appalling rise in unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, certainly leaves room for initiatives by Right to Work … We should continue to fight for local and national affiliations to the campaign and build its AGM in the new year.”

All this represents an implicit confession that ‘Right to Work’ was completely the wrong name for an anti-cuts campaign (it is, obviously, much more suited for a campaign against unemployment). However, don’t expect Unite the Resistance to do any better. In fact, as part of its contortions over ‘united fronts’, the CC continues to deny that UTR is “another anti-cuts campaign”. This “broadly-based resistance which centrally involves forces outside the SWP” is “a union-led organisation that will hopefully draw in cuts campaigners and activists”. Who do they think they’re kidding? Union-led? Centrally involving “forces outside the SWP”? What kind of fantasy world are they living in? The same remark could apply to the statement: “We would like to see it become the framework for a new rank and file organisation.”

This perspective for UTR is contained in a supplementary pre-conference document, entitled ‘Where next after N30?’ Unfortunately, almost before the ink has dried, it is out of date - the possibility of most union leaders selling out the pensions struggle is rapidly becoming the reality, and this document will need a substantial rewrite before the SWP’s conference in a couple of weeks.

But UTR has already taken over from RTW. It is UTR that is to organise a lobby of the TUC on January 12, when public service union leaders are to meet to discuss their acceptance of the pensions sell-out.

‘All out, stay out’

This latest CC pre-conference document mentions in passing that the anti-working class assault is not limited to Britain: “The struggle across Europe against austerity takes different forms. This has to do with interrelated factors such as the scale of the cuts, the combativeness of the ruling class and the strength and confidence of the working class and its political and trade union representatives.”

Yes, but why is this point being made? No conclusion is drawn and the CC simply moves on to the next point. Presumably the talk about “different forms” is meant to discourage the notion that it might be possible to unite the resistance across the continent. Otherwise what is the purpose of these two sentences in a document entitled ‘Where next after N30?’

When it comes to Britain, however, the CC is specific: “We should be arguing to escalate the action as soon as possible - we want further one- or two-day strikes in January at least as big as N30 - bigger if possible.” See what I mean about the document already being out of date?

The leadership also attempts some kind of retrospective justification of ‘All out, stay out’ - a slogan that was effectively dropped immediately after the November 30 action. The CC writes: “Mass, all-out strikes would be the most effective method of defeating this government’s attacks. That is why we have pushed the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’. Of course, this still remains a propaganda slogan, but so was the call for a general strike a year ago! Propaganda slogans are not the immediate next step, but seek to become the common sense of the movement. They can then become agitational demands.”

Well, that’s a new one! Since when can a slogan be “propaganda” - usually defined as the dissemination of many fundamental ideas to a few people? Slogans cannot but be a form of agitation - the dissemination of one idea or a few ideas to many people. If it is a question of educating workers about the current situation - including the importance of building momentum, with the possibility that today’s one-day action could lead to an indefinite general strike some time in the future - then that indeed would be a form of propaganda. But I suppose at least this nonsense is a way of admitting that the slogan is ‘not for now’.

SWP cadres have long since recognised that in practice. They may have dutifully parroted the line in SWP forums or to others on the left, but you can be sure that for the most part they knew better than to raise it in their union branch. This is reflected in the fact that none of the individual contributors to the three IBs, apart from one, even mentioned the slogan when relating their recent experiences.

The one exception is “Justin (Cambridge)”, who wrote of N30: “While three million is a huge number, it represents only a small proportion of the workforce. The majority of workers are not even union members and millions buy into the arguments of the ruling class about the ‘terrible state of the economy’ and the unaffordability of existing pensions. Whether we like it or not, only a tiny minority have the level of class-consciousness necessary to launch into the kind of open class war that ‘All out, stay out’ represents.”

Unless there is a mass rebellion of the rank and file over pensions, it looks like Justin will be proved right sooner than expected. So what was the point of the phrase? He continues: “When I questioned the ‘All out, stay out’ slogan with a comrade, he told me it is not really about asking people to stay out because it was not likely to happen. I said it must be about recruitment then, which he confirmed was obvious.”

Of course, this is just a reported conversation between two SWPers, but I think it demonstrates the cynicism behind the slogan.

Who’s been reading us?

I have concentrated to a large extent on contributions that, in my view, reflect the influence that this paper has been starting to exert, however indirectly, on the SWP membership.

And that must surely apply to the comrades from Manchester District, who, in a short piece entitled ‘Resolution for SWP conference’, write the following:

“The statement, ‘What the Socialist Workers Party stands for’, needs correcting and updating in at least two respects.

First, the opening sentence of the statement is: ‘The workers create all the wealth under capitalism.’ This view was criticised by Marx himself in Critique of the Gotha programme. It confuses ‘wealth’ and ‘value’. It wants redrafting.

Second, the statement says nothing about our position on matters of religion. It should at a minimum state that we defend the rights of believers to practise their religion without state interference.”

The first point in particular is one that the Weekly Worker has been making for some considerable time. Wealth, unlike value, derives ultimately from nature. This error must have been a source of embarrassment to the CC, but it obviously felt unable to initiate the necessary change in view of who it was pointing to the mistake. But, now that the matter has been raised within the SWP itself, I have no doubt that the leadership will thank Manchester for having brought it to the CC’s attention.

Comrades from the same district also seem to partially share our ideas on the nature of leftwing election contests. “Mark and Nahella (Manchester)”, in a piece headed ‘We need “99%” clarity in our strategy for the May elections’, talk about the “derisory” results so far gained by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, but, more importantly, strongly criticise the SWP’s preferred electoral platforms ever since the organisation made its turn to election work from the period of the Socialist Alliance: “We stood as left reformist candidates (who happened to be revolutionaries.) Although revolution was never mentioned.”

The comrades go on: “But we contest that in the coming period it will not suffice for us to follow our former electoral model. One that simply was to present a ‘left alternative to Labour’ …We should aim to use the elections to forward an anti-capitalist, class-struggle alternative to the entire system.”

Good stuff. Although I am not sure about the components of the proposed “anti-capitalistic electoral coalition” representing “the 99%” that Mark and Nahella advocate - “UK Uncut activists, anti-cuts campaigners, trades unionists, students and pensioners, supporters of the Occupy movement”. Why not stand on the basis of a clear Marxist programme?

For its part, the CC, after making the usual leftist noises to the effect that “The November 30 strikes will be far more important than an election campaign”, confirms its intention to stand a small number of Tusc candidates in the May 2012 elections. And the platform? All we are told is: “We should try to break the mould of the normal election campaign and make it more exciting, less drab and more inspiring.”

Positive step

All in all, this Pre-conference Bulletin represents a positive step, however small. As could be expected though, it is highly contradictory. Thus the same “Neil (Edinburgh)” who wrote so eloquently about internal democracy has done us all a disservice with his dismal offering on Scotland.

In ‘The SNP electoral victory, Labour’s crises and the independence referendum’ he not only advocates a ‘yes’ vote in any ballot on separation, but suggests that the SWP should regard the Scottish National Party almost as part of the working class movement. It is “a party other than Labour … offering reforms, sounding as if they actually believe in them, and invoking the social democratic tradition”.

The SWP should not approach the SNP as it does the Tories and Liberal Democrats (“as open enemies”). Instead it should “orientate towards” the approach it employs towards Labour (“as someone we expect to be a friend”). After all, “there are actual socialists in the SNP” and it does claim to be “governing in a social democratic model”.

While comrade Davidson admits that “there are circumstances in which workers’ action has reached such a level that the question of independence would be irrelevant or even reactionary”, we are not living in such circumstances today. True, there are “mainly negative reasons why we support a vote for independence” - the UK is imperialist, “the dominant tone of a campaign to save the union will be built around a reactionary conception of Britishness, not ‘the unity of the British working class’”, etc - but at least a ‘yes’ vote would allow us to “put forward an argument for class politics”.

Nevertheless, overall there are signs of a democratic awakening and indications that all is not lost within the SWP.