Opposition: out in the open

Democratic centralism: The genie and the bottle

If you can loosen SWP restrictions on free debate on one occasion, asks Peter Manson, why not do so permanently?

As reported elsewhere in this edition of the paper, several debates between the Socialist Workers Party leadership and oppositionists took place at Marxism in line with central committee promises. It is a huge advance that the leadership was forced to publicly recognise the SWP’s internal differences and allow them to be aired at its annual summer school.

But the actual disputed questions were not the subject of the sessions. There was no specific debate on SWP democracy (or lack of it), which was raised over and over again by oppositionists during the weekend; and, as for the SWP’s practice in relation to women’s rights - no chance. There were, of course, sessions on women’s oppression, women and austerity, ‘raunch culture’, pornography and so on, but there was no time given over to deal with specific accusations of alleged ‘SWP sexism’ following the Delta case. Once again, the question was raised on numerous occasions, albeit in a totally unorganised and incoherent way.

In every case, the usual Marxism format was adhered to - a 35-minute ‘lecture’ from the main speaker, followed by around 10 three-minute contributions from the floor (in a few sessions, speakers were alternated - one loyalist, one oppositionist and so on), followed by a five-minute response from the ‘lecturer’. The result was that it was very difficult for a clear case to be put - especially as the platform speakers tended to cover the given subject in an abstract way, usually without referring concretely to the specific areas in dispute.

As I say, it was most certainly an advance that these debates took place at all - for the first time those outside the organisation witnessed first-hand the impassioned arguments between members on the central question of the nature of the revolutionary party and how the SWP matches up to what is necessary. But it would clearly have been better to ditch the usual lecture format and aim for a full and genuinely open debate, with oppositionist speakers given equal time to present their case from the platform, and with the session time at least doubled from the normal hour and a quarter. It would also have helped to openly address the points of contention in the name of the session, rather than attempting to disguise them as a study in ‘Leninism’.

There were a number of sessions where the internal arguments were facilitated in this manner, beginning with ‘What is the real International Socialist tradition?’, opened by former ‘loyal oppositionist turned loyal loyalist’ John Molyneux on the Friday, and ending with Paul Le Blanc’s ‘History and future of Leninism’ on the Sunday evening.

Other reports in this paper cover what was said in several such debates, so I will concentrate here on comrade Le Blanc’s session. He is, of course, an author and member of the US International Socialist Organization, and it was unclear whether he expected his opening to be used as a staging post for one of the debates between the rival SWP factions. The ‘history and future of Leninism’ is a rather broad topic and, as comrade Le Blanc himself admitted, there was “a lot of stuff packed in here”.

Without referring directly to the SWP’s problems, he dealt with subjects as wide-ranging as the Bolsheviks’ internal regime and the party’s preparedness for revolution. There were several points that might have been directed at the SWP - for example, the fact that the so-called “Leninism of closed, fixed dogmas was incompatible with Lenin’s actual thought” or his “principled flexibility”. Similarly, he noted that “emergency measures that became permanent”, such as the Bolsheviks’ ‘temporary’ ban on factions in 1921, had found their reflection even in anti-Stalinist organisations, some of which are characterised by “practices that cut across revolutionary democracy”.

He noted that the open ideological struggle within the Bolshevik Party up to 1920 had resulted in “mutual ideological influence” and he did mention his own opposition to “organisational rigidity in the Socialist Workers Party” - but he was at pains to reassure comrades that it was the US SWP of the 1980s he was talking about.

The first speaker from the floor, like just about everyone who followed, did not attempt to engage in any way with what comrade Le Blanc had just said. He wanted to talk about the SWP crisis. It was untrue, he said, that oppositionists like himself just wanted to sit around talking; nor did they want to see a split. But if the second complaint against ‘comrade Delta’ is not dealt with satisfactorily, “people will leave”. He ended by urging: “Open the blog. Open the pre-conference season.”

For the central committee Joseph Choonara found the previous speaker’s comments lacking in concrete criticism: what exactly ought to be changed? In this he was not wrong. He claimed the leadership was for a “serious, honest and open argument” and for a “highly democratic” party. Contrary to the claims of oppositionists, the CC did not believe that a mass, revolutionary party could be built incrementally, simply by recruiting to the SWP. He did not say how he thought such a party could be brought into being, but if “the SWP became a mass revolutionary party it would be absolutely transformed”. Again he did not say in what way its internal practice would be different.

The next, rather tearful comrade found it all just too much. While she found points to agree with in the arguments of both leadership and opposition, “People on both sides seem intent on making this party implode.” She put it all down to a lack of trust: “Why should non-members trust us when we don’t trust ourselves?”

Loyalist Paul McGarr reaffirmed that he, like the CC, was “not interested in shutting down debate” - “long may the argument continue”, he added. But he was against the “blogs and forums”, since they result in only a section of the membership having their say. Instead we need to talk about making the debate “accessible to all members”.

This truly is a pathetic argument. What on earth is ‘inaccessible’ about public blogs? What is preventing anyone who wants from joining in the debate? For that matter, what is preventing the leadership itself from organising a permanent debate forum incorporating the entire membership? The reality is, of course, that the CC wants to avoid such debate as far as possible - it wants a free hand to run things as it sees fit, with criticism kept under wraps, carefully controlled and confined to the annual three-month pre-conference period.

Comrade McGarr was followed by Campbell McGregor, who condemned the CC for practising “anti-Leninism” - he implored: “I want us to start being a Leninist party.” He weighed into the CC for preventing the election of oppositionists as conference delegates wherever it could instead of trying to ensure the argument was heard at the March special conference. As for the current system of electing the CC, comrade McGregor slammed the “single-tendency slate” for making it impossible to hold individual CC members to account. Ignoring the pre-conference vote-rigging, the next speaker simply reiterated that people had proposed changes in the system of election, but they “lost the debate”. He, for one, was “proud of our democracy”.

Ahmed Shawki, an ISO comrade who is prepared to say openly what he thinks, pointed to the dishonesty of the CC in “turning things into a debate on Leninism” - the implication was that those who dared to challenge the CC’s line were just not Leninists, he argued passionately.

Comrade Le Blanc himself, ever the conciliator, chose his words more carefully. Ironically noting that one or two contributors had actually referred to his opening in their speeches, he was obliged to address some of the points made. He had great respect for the SWP, he said, and feared we were looking at a “devastating split in the making”. However, he proposed no concrete measures to avert such a split, instead reminding everyone that in Lenin’s time, “Comrades in Russia diverged, then got back together.” His criticisms remained implicit - “Democracy is central,” he said (so perhaps it was lacking in the SWP?).

It was the kind of speech the CC would have approved of - people on both sides of the divide could applaud and even the tearful comrade might have felt a little better.

Observing this and other sessions, I could not help wondering how these semi-debates at Marxism - together with the publication of (politely worded) contending viewpoints in Socialist Review - fitted in with the CC’s insistence that all discussion within ‘the party’ must be restricted to the pre-conference period and kept internal. Surely the genie has been let out of the bottle - if you can depart from that ‘Leninist’ practice on one occasion, why not do so permanently?