SWP conference: Crazy contortions of SWP central committee
Following criticisms of the SWPs culture and practice in the first two Internal Bulletins, the leadership has mobilised to rubbish opponents. Peter Manson reports
The third and final Socialist Workers Party Pre-conference Bulletin has seen a concerted counterattack led by the central committee against comrades calling for greater democracy, openness and honesty within the organisation.
As readers may recall, strong points were made in the first two IBs (Internal Bulletins, as they are commonly known) by “Ian”, “Paris”, “Ruth” and “Justin” - for reasons of security only first names are given (although when that given name is something like “Lovedeep”, “Søren”, “Aamna” or “Despina”, it makes you wonder just how ‘secure’ it all is - especially when the comrade’s SWP branch is specified).
The critics demanded, in particular, much more genuine debate - to be facilitated by more frequent discussion bulletins and the right of CC members and full-timers to state their own individual views rather than be bound by the central line on every question, including tactical nuances. There was also the call to do away with the undemocratic, ‘take it or leave it’ slate system for electing the CC, and for the leadership to honestly face up to its mistakes and failures, and admit to the organisation’s weaknesses - not least the real state and size of the membership.
The similarity of the responses - from both the CC itself and from various individuals and groups of comrades - leads one to suspect a degree of coordination. The main criticism of especially Paris and Ruth is that their proposals would deprive the SWP of any effectiveness by calling into question democratic centralism itself. This is combined with the claim (implied by the CC, openly stated by others) that the critics just want to sit around talking instead of getting on with the action.
In its contribution entitled ‘Democracy, intervention and the revolutionary party: a reply to Paris and Ruth’, the CC begins by stating: “The starting point for any evaluation of the party’s internal mode of operation - how it organises, debates, elects its leadership and so on - is an assessment of the current balance of class forces and how the party has responded to the major tests it has faced in the recent period. Unfortunately, neither Ruth nor Paris make any serious attempt to develop such an assessment.”
This allows the leadership to go into a long diversion about the great successes of Unite the Resistance and Unite Against Fascism, the SWP’s two main fronts at the moment. Don’t the critics realise that their outstanding achievements are all down to the current forms of organisation? According to the CC, “… the general direction of many of the arguments and proposals they make are ones that would act to weaken the party’s ability to act effectively in the class struggle at a crucial juncture. Indeed, at stake is how we conceive the nature of a revolutionary party itself.” The effect of those proposals, “if accepted, would be to shift the SWP towards being a much more decentralised and less interventionist party”.
“Jess (South East London)”, “Paul (East London)” and “Doug (Birmingham)” head their riposte: ‘In defence of Leninism’: “There is a very strong smell in these arguments,” they write, “that locates a problem as being inbuilt to, inherent in, any form of leadership.” The rather mild suggestions from Paris, Ruth and so on for introducing some basic democracy into the SWP would apparently represent “a break from any serious notion of a democratic-centralist, interventionist party in the Leninist tradition”.
For his part, “Jeff (Cardiff)” says they result from a “creeping infection of autonomism in their attack on democratic centralism and the slate system of voting in particular”, while “Gareth (Hackney)” says that all this “shades into the suspicion of revolutionary leadership as remote and manipulative that is characteristic of movementism”. He too alleges that the critics are making “an argument against democratic centralism itself”.
“Sean (North London)” also weighs in. I wonder if he is the same person as “Sean V (Islington)”, who is standing once more for the 50-strong national committee and goes by the name of Vernell? He pretends to believe that “the model put forward is closer to the social democratic type practised within the trade unions than those in a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism. The proposals, if implemented, would institutionalise passivity within the organisation.” But “we must not see their proposals in abstract from the method in which they are rooted”: ie, one that would take the SWP “away from the democratic centralist tradition”.
Finally “Shaun (Thames Valley)” alleges: “Implicit in both contributions is a different view of the party. Do we want to intervene in struggles as an organisation or simply participate in them as a loose grouping of individuals?”
I cannot believe that these comrades seriously believe that such proposals, which in reality ought to be uncontroversial in a genuinely democratic-centralist organisation, are inspired by impulses that are anarchistic, social democratic - or both.
The main change in formal democracy that the leadership’s critics propose involves a switch to individual voting. for CC elections. In the words of a motion from Bury and Prestwich branch, “For the January 2013 conference, slates or individuals may be nominated, after which the election will take place on the basis of votes for individual candidates rather than slates, which means that conference must decide the number of people it wishes to elect to the CC before electing them.”
At the moment, if a comrade wishes to stand for the CC he or she may do so only as part of a full slate. One complication is that there is no fixed size for that slate - that is, there is no rule stipulating how many people should sit on the central committee. Another is that it is unclear whether those nominated for a particular slate can refuse to appear on a rival one. For example, if you are opposed to the re-election of a single current CC member and want to nominate a slate with someone else on it instead, are the rest of the outgoing CC obliged to stand on your slate as well as their own? If so, then any number of nominated individuals could simply add their name to the current list of CC members, and conference delegates would in effect be voting for or against those individuals. If not, you will have no option but to try to chuck out the entire leadership.
So what is wrong with the Bury and Prestwich motion? Let the CC explain: “A leadership elected on an individual basis is one that is more likely to pursue different perspectives rather than collectively agree a coherent and focused strategy which its takes responsibility for, can be tested in practice.” Even without the garbled grammar it would be difficult to follow this. What is actually wrong with having “different perspectives” feed into the collective? Doesn’t that actually help in arriving at a “coherent and focused strategy”?
Jess, Paul and Doug go for a different line: “The key problem is that delegates at our conference are and should be voting for a leading body and not simply individuals. We do not want to vote for this or that individual to be a CC member: we want to decide on what we think is the right leading body for the party as a whole.” This is so stupid, it almost beggars belief. Is that “leading body” not made up of “individuals”? Yes, but, as things stand, they can only be selected by the self-perpetuating CC.
Other CC apologists come up with equally absurd statements. For example, Jeff says: “The great advantage of the slate system is that the party gets exactly the slate that the majority vote for and not the haphazard result of individual voting.” For “Gareth (Hackney)” the effect of the latter would be to “move us away from a democratic-centralist idea of the party towards a more movementist notion of leadership, one representing a coalition of overlapping interests”. Overlapping interests? He adds: “The slate system, along with political clarity, has stood us in good stead, in a way that cannot be said of other revolutionary organisations … which have been tolerant of permanent factionalism and eclecticism in their politics.” No-one could ever accuse the SWP of eclecticism, could they?
Then there is “Donny (Edinburgh)” - I wonder what his surname is. This one is a gem: “The revolutionary party tries to lead the working class in its fight to defeat capitalism. That alone brings real democracy. Our internal practices exist to help achieve these ends. So the democratic question of how to choose a CC comes down to how to secure the best central leadership.” In other words, internal democracy matters not a jot - as though there is no relationship between how we conduct ourselves within the “revolutionary party” and what we advocate for society as a whole.
Donny states: “With slates the argument is therefore about faults in political strategy, not individuals. If members think a political problem exists, a different slate can and should be proposed to correct these faults ... with individual elections the creation of a CC would be more haphazard, and less likely to produce a coherent political line”. He concludes by asking: “What type of CC will best equip the party to spearhead the fight for the general strike: an assembly of individuals or a collective body?”
Sean Vernell again: “If we go down the road of electing our CC members on an individual basis, then not only does it become a ‘popularity contest’, but also it will break any possibility of the leadership being able to act in a collective way, because it will reinforce individual members of the CC to be more responsive to their individual power bases in the party rather than to the collective will of the CC and that of conference decisions.”
How can intelligent people come up with such nonsense? Ironically many of these comrades pay lip service to the notion that there is no one single correct way to elect a leadership, but surely that contradicts their dogmatic defence of the slate system.
Comrade Vernell also has something to say about another of the proposals from Ruth and Paris: “If the party supports their calls to give full-time workers the same democratic rights as the unpaid members of the party, it will bring about a significant shift of democracy away from the unpaid members to unelected full-time workers within the organisation. The problem of granting full-time workers the same democratic rights as non-paid members of the party is it could lead to unelected full-time workers overriding the democratically made decisions of the members through conference and party councils.”
What on earth is he talking about? The idea, as I understand it, is that all members should have equal rights. No-one should be seen as a mere conduit for the leadership without being able to make their own input. As another motion from Bury and Prestwich puts it, “… full-timers have a particular responsibility to win the party as a whole to carrying through decisions effectively. If some argue against decisions that have been reached, or obstruct their implementation, this undermines our democracy, our unity in action and the effectiveness of the party.”
However, the motions proposes: “Individual CC members and full-timers can participate freely in the key areas of the party’s democracy - NC meetings, internal bulletins, and speaking at party conference, without being bound by the CC ‘line’.”
As he did last year, Neil Davidson - “Neil (Edinburgh)” - adds further clarity, including on the democratic balance between leaders, full-timers and lay members: “… members of the CC must be free to express their views during the pre-conference period, in the same way as other comrades - including other full-timers. At the moment, we have no way of knowing what individual CC members actually think on any issue.”
The CC is, after all, “the main active element and provider of initiatives. If there are disagreements, or even just differences of emphasis on the CC, we need to know what these are, since this obviously has a bearing on what decisions conference itself may make.”
In the words of one of the motions from Bury and Prestwich, “Discipline is for unity in action in the carrying out of decisions, not to stifle debate. It is better that the strongest possible speakers from each point of view are heard to ensure maximum clarity. Discipline is necessary in a revolutionary party to ensure united action against the enemies of the working class, not against our own members.”
Comrade Davidson points to other failings. Referring to the slate system, he states: “The procedure we have used virtually since the founding of the SWP in 1976 has exhausted any usefulness it may once have had.” However, the problem is the unaccountable culture, of which the slate system is an essential part.
For example, John Rees may have been blamed for the Respect debacle and criticised for his leadership style. But what happened after he was deposed? “At the time, some of us argued that the party’s difficulties … were not simply the result of the politics and personalities of the Rees-German-Bambery-Nineham faction, but instead had deeper structural roots, which allowed this group to dominate the CC and hence the party, and which, unless consciously dealt with, would survive its departure.”
However, demonstrating the total failure of the SWP majority to understand basic democracy are statements like this one from Shaun: “What would clearly be a recipe for disarming the party is the suggestion from Paris that ‘different political tendencies should be represented on the CC’. The CC needs to provide coherent collective leadership. Of course there will be debate and disagreement, but enshrining an organised opposition within it would render it inoperable.”
Or “Pete (Birmingham)”: “Does [Paris] really think that we would be a more coherent, united and effective organisation in this situation? The divisions in the CC would be a permanent feature and the whole party would experience the debilitating effect of this.” So the leadership must be monolithic. Does that apply then to all organisations and institutions? How about workers’ soviets? Would they be “inoperable” if they contained opposition groups?
“Simon (Huddersfield)” gives an example of how the current culture allows the leadership to push through changes. In September a party council - the delegate body that meets once or twice a year between conferences - agreed a document regarding the submission of motions to conference. “From now on,” says Simon, “a faction of members that remains a minority opinion in the branches will be denied the right to submit a motion to conference to be debated.”
Factions, of course, are only permitted in the three-month period before conference, which takes place at the beginning of January every year (in 2013 it will be held in London over the weekend of January 4-6). Simon says that the change “makes a mockery of the current rules on members being able to organise as a faction in the run-up to conference, in order to try to win conference to their position”.
Whatever you think about this, Simon certainly has a point when he writes: “… proposals on how conference is structured … or on how motions are submitted … should have been debated and voted on at conference, not a party council … attended by fewer delegates than attend conference, and at such short notice that only the delegates attending party council were sent the CC proposals to read before they were adopted.” So the right of factions to submit motions to conference was abolished without any discussion in the organisation as a whole.
Yet, as Simon points out, “Under the commissions system, a group of comrades can propose an ‘alternative commission’ to be voted on … can any group of like-minded delegates submit an alternative? Do we now have one rule for motions and another for commissions?” Commissions are “documents drawn up at the end of conference sessions which summarise the main strands of discussion and action to be taken”, writes national secretary Charlie Kimber in introducing conference procedure. He does indeed state that “if there is more than one point of view in the discussion, then there can be alternative commissions which are then voted on”.
So anything can be proposed by anyone from the conference floor without prior notice? Apparently. But in reality, of course, it will only be the leadership that will be in a position to do this.
The last thing the CC wants is real debate. So, for example, it writes in response to Ruth and Paris: “The call for more Internal Bulletins must at least be tempered by a concern to avoid creating an organisation more preoccupied with internal arguments than intervention, and where those comrades with the time to write for and read the extra IBs set the agenda for debate, rather than delegate meetings at party council and conference. Such collective discussion is ultimately a higher form of democracy than a series of individual contributions which may only haphazardly reflect the wider overall experiences of comrades.”
So it is actually better when delegates agree a proposal without having discussed it in advance, is it? Just like they did at the September party council. But aren’t those comrades “with the time to write for and read the extra IBs” also likely to be the ones with “the time” to go to conference in any case?
In case you have any doubt about the leadership’s contemptuous attitude to debate, here are the CC’s recommendations in relation to Socialist Worker Student Societies: “We want to roll out SWSS caucuses that are broader than just the SWP members: These should have a five-minute-long political introduction and then set out the political tasks. We will have to patiently explain why we do paper sales, use petitions, and involve ourselves in particular political activities.”
Yes, that’s right: five minutes for a “political introduction” and then straight on to the real “political tasks” like organising paper sales.
But it is not just students who should stop all this political discussion. “Penny (Edinburgh)” - a co-thinker of “Donny” - has a piece entitled ‘How small changes can make a difference to a branch’. She proudly announces that Edinburgh branch meetings have been reduced to one hour, 25 minutes. They must finish at 9pm: “Comrades who are parents, who have to get up for work early doors … who are disabled and who find sitting still for two hours draining/painful/impossible, can all find long meetings difficult. Shortening them is orientating on the working class.”
And Penny advises comrades in other towns and cities to follow suit: “The only items for the branch meeting agenda after the political lead-off and discussion are basically what we did last week (and how it went), plus what we are doing in the week to come and why. This doesn’t preclude in-depth political discussion and debate on items like UTR, etc.” Yes, the “in-depth” debate will be about why everyone should make sure they go to the next Unite the Resistance ‘conference’, I suppose.
But not to worry, there is always the branch committee, which Penny says had to be set up to deal with outstanding business and whose meetings “last on average 35 minutes”.
Everyone knows that too much thinking and debating is bad for you. That’s what the CC is there for, after all. Here is comrade Vernell again: “The calls for more theory articulated in some of the pre-conference bulletins reflect a gradualist approach to leadership and class struggle: first you get everyone in a room to debate and discuss our theory of working class struggle and trade unions. When everyone is clear and has the ‘correct’ understanding, then we go out in the field of struggle to implement this ‘correct’ understanding.”
Whatever happened to the dialectical relationship between theory and practice?
Not everyone is bludgeoned into submission though. “Tim (Bristol)” declares: “Internal Bulletins before party councils will revitalise that body, which has, at the moment, little value other than a forum where the CC can mobilise the party faithful.” But who said the CC wants it ‘revitalised’, Tim?
And “Ian (Manchester)” makes a reappearance to follow up his submission to IB No1. Having mentioned in passing those “backward ideas such as counterposing theory and activity”, he goes into abstract mode, being careful not to direct his criticisms to anyone in particular:
“A leadership that is over-reliant on a party ‘machine’ would tend to be highly protective of it. Anything or anyone they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as a threat to their control over it would elicit an exaggerated, almost paranoid, reaction. Instead of comradely and political debate there would be a closing of ranks and a desire to deal with any issues within the machine - ‘not in front of the children’.”
But thankfully, there is no such regime in today’s SWP. Or is there? Ian goes on: “This was the unhealthy party culture comrades experienced in the era of Rees, German and Bambery and which we have begun to correct. But let us not kid ourselves that the SWP is the ‘finished article’ of a revolutionary party - we have a lot of work to do!”
In its reply to Ruth and Paris, the CC extols the virtues of an “honest analysis of our successes and failures” - and then in the very next paragraph declares: “The recent UTR national conference on November 17 was a significant success, with 1,000 in attendance.”
Even more “honest” is comrade “Sean” - he should know: he was one of the main speakers at the event: “The Unite the Resistance … conference … was a great success. The turnout surpassed most comrades’ expectations. Over 1,000 people attended - the majority, by some margin, were not members of the SWP.”
So a hall that officially “seats up to 1,000” and was only three-quarters full somehow had “over 1,000” people in it. What is more, most of them were not SWP members. In that case, the leadership’s all-out attempts to mobilise its own comrades were truly a dismal failure, weren’t they? Only 300-400 could be bothered to go along.
How apposite is the comment by “Anna and Sue (North London)” and “Regine (Central London)” in their piece on the women’s question: “As Lenin said, ‘Never lie to the class’ - this also means our own members.”
As an aside, it is in the context of mobilisations for the likes of UTR that comrade Davidson points to one of the SWP’s fundamental weaknesses: its inability to develop a coherent strategy resulting from its refusal to adopt any programme. He writes: “We have always refused to follow orthodox Trotskyist organisations in drawing up programmatic demands, transitional or otherwise. For much of our history this has been a defensible position, allowing the maximum tactical flexibility … But unconstrained manoeuvrability, like all forms of ‘stick-bending’, has come at a cost. To this day we tend to operate with a set of relatively short-term tactics.” And if they fail “this has no consequences or implications for our analysis, despite the significance we have previously ascribed to them. We simply move on to building for the next all-important demonstration or event. What is our strategy?”
The question of honesty also comes up in other contributions, such as ‘Building the resistance, building the unions’ by “Brian and Pete (Leeds and West Yorkshire)”. They contend: “… the SWP seriously failed to realise (or was insufficiently honest about) the extent and the speed of demoralisation [throughout the working class]. A tendency of misplaced triumphalism made it difficult for many members to be open about the difficulties they were having in re-invigorating any sense of resistance.”
(These two, by the way, also state: “… we have often tended … to repeat that this government is almost uniquely weak”. However, “it is quite probable that the present government could remain in office in some shape or form until May 2015”.)
Nowhere is the leadership’s dishonesty more apparent than on the question of membership figures. These must go up every year and anyone who has signed a membership application form within the last two years, irrespective of whether they have ever been seen or heard from since, must be counted as a member.
In IB No2 Paris called for this demoralising practice of servicing ‘members’ who have never been to a meeting or paid a penny in subs to be ended. But the CC indulges in more crazy contortions in twisting his words: “Paris … calls for more involvement by members in the party. However, it seems this will only apply to some members, since he proposes that the way to resolve what he rather insultingly calls the ‘low political level’ of too many members is to conduct a purge of the membership lists.”
I wonder why it is ‘insulting’ to say that the membership has a “low political level” - it is not as though they have much opportunity to develop their ideas through vigorous debate, is it? The CC also reprimands Paris for wanting to “exclude comrades with major family commitments or trade union responsibilities”. It alleges he also “ignores how sudden shifts can take place in comrades’ level of activity and involvement”. In fact “to reduce the party only to the ‘most active’ … would be to cut it off from much of its links to the wider working class and risk turning it into a sect existing in a vacuum.”
But they are arguing against things Paris did not say. On the one hand, there are inactive members who nevertheless will turn up to the odd event, help out in specific campaigns and make financial contributions, and, on the other, at least half of the SWP’s “registered members” do none of those things.
“Simon and Christine” from the membership office inform comrades that this “registered membership” stands at 7,597 - the SWP “recruited 890 people since this time last year”. But they assure the likes of Paris that “We have taken off 420 people from the lists this year.” That gives you some idea of the “membership” turnover. Presumably a similar number of ‘members’ are struck off every year. In other words, about half those ‘recruited’ do nothing more than pass through the SWP revolving door.
“Anne and Martin (North-West London)” state: “Based on the statistics of three London districts, we estimate there are just a few hundred comrades in the whole country involved in the ‘effective intervention’”. The CC’s answer is to launch yet another “subs drive”, whereby the minority of activists are expected to spend hours and hours telephoning, emailing or personally calling on those elusive “registered members” - to very little avail.
As “Tim (Bristol)” points out, “Continued massaging of membership figures and branch numbers must end, and the overreliance on the central office needs to stop”.