the crisis in the swp

21 01 2013

Members of Britain’s Socialist Workers Party are resigning from the party in droves, says duvinrouge. The impetus comes from a sexual assault allegation against a senior member of the party, & allegations that it wasn’t investigated properly. But unpinning this is the discontent due to the lack of party democracy.


The SWP is a Leninist party & therefore internally organises in a way that is termed democratic-centralism. The basic idea being that the majority decision is decided upon & then there is unity of action led by a central committee. It actual fact it’s a fig-leaf ideology to allow a few to justify their life as professional revolutionaries, dreaming of their place in history, whilst the rank & file members sell the paper to fund this lifestyle. It’s much like parliamentary democracy’s claim to represent the wishes of the people & gives us the illusion of having a say.

Every year at conference the SWP elect the 12 members of the central committee. But they don’t get elected individually. The central committee itself puts forward a ‘slate’ – a list of names, often the same ones – for conference to vote on. Leading up to conference members can opening organise factions which can put forward an alternative slate. Such factions are only allowed to form about 3 months prior to conference. As far as I know the CC slate usually, if not always, wins. The same faces have power year after year, e.g. Alex Callinicos. Unsurprisingly this leads to a ‘them & us’ mentality.

This is not the first time that the SWP has faced such a crisis. A major split occurred in 2010 when John Rees & Lindsey German left the party & set up Counterfire after Rees was blamed for the failure of the Respect electoral coalition. This was soon followed by Chris Bambery’s departure & his setting up of the International Socialist Group (Scotland). Despite efforts to improve party democracy many members have not been satisfied. But what most will not accept is that the root of the problem lies in allowing a group of professional revolutionaries, supported financially by the rank & file, to hold almost all the power & make the decisions. It’s the same problem in the trade unions whereby the union bureaucracy sells out its members.

If revolutionaries want a communist society where everyone has an equal say, why do they organise in a way that creates a group that is ‘more equal’ than others? They need to recognise their egos & limit the amount of time that anyone can have in a role. Obviously this is limited by the number of members, their skills & their willingness to take on responsibility. But for a group the size of the SWP it doesn’t seem unreasonable to limit the time in a role to two or three years, & preferably doing these roles whilst working like other ordinary members. They should then be prevented for holding any role again for at least five years. All roles should also be voted upon by all members. In otherwords, organise a party as you would organise a communist society. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for?

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6 responses

22 01 2013

The essential meaning of Democratic centralism is the party as a machine to implement the correct programme or tradition of the leadership. The party is identified with the programme and in turn the programme is identified with the leadership, who are its custodians. The origin of the concept is with the Mensheviks in 1904 who left in place a strong executive , but introduced elections for officials. This was considered appropriate for the oppressive conditions of tsarist Russia. The Bolsheviks followed their lead and placed more stress on the correct programme.

But this old political culture,which is not relevant in the political conditions of today is still repeated dogmatically.Ben Lewis writing in the weekly worker, Jan 17, unthinkingly repeats “that the party is built on theory and program from the top down….For Marxists this is the ABC. It would be more accurate to say that for Stalinists and some Trotskyists this is the basic language of their politics. The elementary position of Marx was the self emancipation of the working class.

Ben has an aspiration for respecting other communists who have different views,but its a standard he fails to reach. Instead, he prefers to subject them to the political abuse of the playground. Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy of the Anti Capitalist Initiative are liquidationists, and their break from workers power was non political. As for Barry Biddulph and the Commune they are pseudo anarchists. Where is the rational engagement with the ideas of the ACI and the Commune? At one point Ben Lewis becomes rather carried away with sneering and comments that the image of Rosa Luxemburg used in an article in the commune is a flattering image of her. Now think about the implications of this remark about the “looks” of Rosa Luxemburg in the context of the scandal in the SWP.

Workers Power have also reaffirmed their continuing loyalty to the old Russian tradition. “Only a correct programme can guarantee a healthy party” The holy grail of the correct programme. Which party and its leaders have always been correct? The infallible Lenin,always bending the stick,but always returning to the correct policy? The history of the Russian Revolution shows otherwise. The programme of 1903 was wrong in 1905 and 1917. Having called for the minimum programme for years the Bolsheviks ignored it in 1917 and having demanded the constituent assembly for all those years they dispersed it after one day. In 1917 the Bolsheviks followed the masses not the programme.

And that’s the point. The leaders of Workers power assume a one way street: The leaders will teach the members and the workers. Conformity to the programme and the leadership is the thing. This is way workers power counter pose the individual member to the leadership. These individual members do not have the right to argue against the leadership in public.This also assumes a separation between the party and the working class. The group member argues even against his own convictions which is a deeply corrupting experience. A Communist party as an organic part of the working class would be open to grass roots politics and allowance would be made for the class and the party member to be openly critical of the leadership.But to workers power its all about control of the member of the group.

What events in the SWP demonstrate is that a new culture and way of organising is required urgently.

23 01 2013

Today I was re- reading the words of an ex member of the SWP: “to my knowledge,at least two men on the central committee are guilty of serious sexual assaults against women members of the organisation”. Is this another, contribution to the ongoing scandal in the SWP. No. These words are from Keith Fisher a member of the SWP from 1983 to 1994. They can be found in his contribution- Discipline and Punish- to A taste of Honey(the SWP, yesterday and today) produced by expelled and ex members of the SWP. Not surprisingly,the issue was not dealt with in an open or democratic way.

When Keith discussed producing a cultural magazine with Andy Wilson, Tony Cliff said to him;your being factional. He denied it. Cliff retorted: once we have decided you are a faction,you are a faction. When the then control commission, who heard appeals against expulsion, assembled to hear Andy Wilsons appeal, it was led by Callinicos and German, two of the central committee which had already expelled him. When Andy asked for a written list of his charges his request was denied on security grounds.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution to a Taste of Honey is from James D Young in his piece,Socialist Review Group and Libertarian Marxism. This is recollections from the 1950’s Socialist Review Group.During this time Cliff and Kidron and the family group around them in the leadership were anti Leninist and very critical of the Bolshevik heritage. But what James disliked was their view of members and workers as history’s instruments to be used and manipulated. If you stepped outside the warmth of the approval of the leadership you stepped into the cold, and indeed ultimately into the wilderness. An odd view of the working class.

23 01 2013

This is the opinion of Tony Cliff on the relation between party and class.

“since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class,all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open,in it’s presence” and again “let the mass of workers take part in the discussion,put pressure on the party,its apparatus and leadership”

Tony Cliff on Trotsky and Substitutionism from Neither Washington nor Moscow page 207.

24 01 2013

I’d like to comment briefly on the quote of the party being built topd down on the basis of the program being an ABC of Marxism. I’m not sure whether this is an opinion of commie46 or Ben Lewis, but anyway it is entirely wrong as it mixes up the basic question of a platform/program with a flawed method of organization.

I’d also like to point out that the basics of democratic centralism are not antithetical to organizational democracy. These being the election of executive bodies on the basis of the decisions of the majority of the membership. This model, which is first and most importnatly practical, cam amd should be followed by measures which would restrict careerism and the development of the bureaucracy. Measures such as the limitation on the number of consequitive times a member might sit on an executive bodies and a severe restriction of the financial compensation. But this of course presupposes a different take on informal views on the constitution of the party – there should be no gap between the theoretical and the practical, or at least steps need to be taken in order not to allow this gap to widen.

25 01 2013

Democratic Centralism mirrors Bourgeois democracy with a small number of leaders representing the membership. The transition from Capitalism is envisaged as the baton passing from the Bourgeois cabinet to the central committee. Although in Bourgeois democracy everyone has the vote. The membership of a democratic centralist party do not have a vote for the leaders. Delegates to the conference have the vote not the membership. Even the delegates cannot usually select a leader of their choice due to the sever restrictions of the slate system

Since the central committee or dominant faction have most of the say, decisions making and influence through publications and choice of speakers and so on, the opinion of delegates will reflect this inequality in influence. This is the cloning effect where there is continuity of the political tradition of the circle of leaders, even if these Leaders were restricted in the number of years they could serve on leading bodies.

If there was not continuity of leaders and tradition there would be no Democratic Centralism. Thats what its all about. A stong centre with a handful of leaders who do the thinking and a membership who do the doing.Again this reflects the division of Labour under capitalism rather than break it down in order to transcend it. Indeed, some of the authoritarian aspects of military culture are often reproduced. The rank and file follow the instructions. Iron Discipline.

Democratic centralism is a form of Jacobinism. It assumes the party and the class are separate or apart. The party with the correct policy comes to the workers from the outside to teach them the road to take. Usually members of the party cannot criticise the leaders in public and if the membership is kept in the dark about issues discussed in the inner sanctum of the leadership then party discussion is also kept private in the party. If the membership is not trusted,then the working class is not trusted either.

25 01 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Some very good points made here. However, what is often missing from some of the lefts analysis of the recent revelations emanating from within the SWP is a sense that they are not alone in their mode of operation. To my mind, having a swipe at the SWP’s recent problems – as some rival sectarians have done – is therefore not the best way to deal with the serious issues involved. For this reason this weeks article at is entitled ‘Clinging onto Patriarchy’. It suggests that the whole of society – including much of the left – is dominated by inherited patriarchal forms which result in various forms of marginalisation and exploitation of women – and not just in the SWP.

Regards, Roy


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