This is of course pure gravy for me, but it’s nice to see the discussion in the SWP going on apace. I have to say that this is the most serious discussion for, oh, at least 20 years, and you have to hope that something good will come of it. By the way, I am greatly amused at the idea of my chum Richard Seymour writing an IB document calling for a culture of open discussion. What lends this some piquancy is that, despite the Tomb operating a comments policy akin to the Pravda letters page, there are people in the party hierarchy who reckon Richard’s blog to be dangerously undisciplined and anarchistic.
Sadly, this presumed comic masterpiece is not yet in the public domain, although a trip to the underground car park may yet turn up a copy. What we have at the moment is a goodish article from John Molyneux, a genuinely excellent one from Neil Davidson, and a pretty poor one from the Harmanator on behalf of the CC.
Let’s deal with Chris first, and I must say that, while there’s some good historical stuff on the United Front, in general it’s not a very inspiring read. On the other hand, I do remember many years ago being much taken by Chris’ “Party and Class”, and it’s nice to see Chris emerging as a champion of enhanced democracy in the party. Nice, if a little unexpected. Chris, remember, has been in the leadership for over forty years and in all that time has shown little sign of ever thinking that the SWP’s internal democracy fell short of perfection. Indeed, what he was best known for in the old IS days was never once voting against Cliff. On more than one occasion, Cliff and Harman were a minority of two, but it was a cast-iron rule that, if you knew what Cliff thought, that was also what Harman thought. His major role, in fact, was to render Cliff’s brainstorms into a workable perspective.
This has an unfortunate effect on the political content of the article. One expects Chris to defend the honour of the leadership, but the insistence on the leadership’s unparalleled wisdom over the decades does grate a little. I am especially unimpressed by Chris disinterring one of Cliff’s less attractive ideas, that the leadership was right even when it was wrong. Here he is on Bambery’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign shutting down the branches:
Most members of the current CC would probably recognise that the CC of eight years ago made mistakes over the branches at the time—mistakes we are still suffering from in some areas. But the mistakes were in response to the real problem that many party branches were becoming stultified and routinist (with members beginning not to attend out of boredom). It is easy to forget that a good many members felt a sense of relief at the decision taken by the CC. We chose the wrong solution, but there was a problem.
No matter how much waffle about dialectics or stick-bending you throw in there, Chris, it doesn’t improve things.
On the plus side, Chris does realise that the internal democracy of the party is deeply stunted and atrophied, and that this has more to do with the culture of the party than the formal structures. I give Chris a brownie point for that, but promptly take it away for his suggestion that the lack of rank-and-file involvement in debate is the fault of the ranks for being too dazzled by the sagacity of the CC.
There is little else to say on Chris, although I’m slightly annoyed at the treatment of Respect, where it might be putting things too strongly to say that Chris’ pants are on fire, but there does seem to be some definite smouldering coming from his nether regions.
Look, I was hostile to the formation of Respect, for reasons that are probably not a million miles removed from those that Chris alludes to. I had doubts about George Galloway, I felt the closure of the Socialist Alliance and the launching of Respect was done in a completely high-handed manner (not that I had much time for the SA, but never mind), and while I felt the socialist-Muslim alliance coming out of the antiwar movement was extremely important, I suspected that the SWP was approaching this alliance in an opportunistic manner and that the alliance was too unstable to base a party around. While my position was probably sectarian, I do continue to feel that those concerns were justified.
An open argument around these issues would be quite healthy for the SWP, but unfortunately we don’t have one. John Rees is right to be aggrieved in that the whole leadership endorsed his actions last year, but that also restricts the ability of the CC majority to admit any mistakes. What all four of our writers give us is the libertyvalanced history of Respect, with Galloway’s right deviation being read ever further back into the past, with an insistence on the mythological “witch-hunt of socialists” in Respect, with AWL-lite stuff about rightwing Islamists, and with everyone saying the SWP was correct to “resist Galloway”. Resist him over what, one might ask? Over his complaints about John Rees’ performance as Respect secretary, and the suggestion that another SWP member be appointed to work alongside John? The same John Rees who’s just been sacked from the CC, on the basis of his failings as a leader? Since Harman, Molyneux and Davidson all bemoan their loss of the middle ground in Respect, they might like to consider whether continuing this sort of mendacity sheds some light on their lack of allies in a battle they didn’t even need to fight.
And, before I get too annoyed, let’s pass on to Neil Davidson. Neil begins his article with some spectacular puffery on behalf of the SWP, but I’ll leave that aside. I will also pass over quickly his failure to say anything substantial about the split in the SSP, as if it was nothing to do with him. These are not insubstantial points, but they don’t detract from the substance of his article, and the very strong points he makes on leadership.
I will point out, just as an aside, that Neil is good on the membership figures and in particular the strange category of “unregistered member” – that is, people who aren’t members but who remain on the books. There’s also the interesting point that the claimed registered membership is 6100, down from 6900 last year, despite by all accounts the SWP having done a good bit of recruitment around the colleges. This suggests that Martin Smith is trying to massage the claimed membership down towards something more closely approximating the real membership, without admitting that the present figures are massively inflated. Give him a few more years, and you might actually get an honest figure.
Anyway, here’s Neil on the party’s subjectivism:
However, since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism, lack of involvement, failure to understand the new mood, inability to see the silver linings in every dark cloud, or whatever.
Quite so. Which led to an assumption that the failings of the organisation could be traced to a lack of enthusiasm in the ranks, which led to the culture of forced marches and target-setting, which led to all sorts of other undesirable outcomes. Breaking with this subjectivism, and trying to achieve a reasonable sense of what can actually be achieved, is the beginning of wisdom.
Neil is also good on the United Front – which is, after all, at the heart of transitional politics – and on the CC’s habit, inherited largely from Cliff, of using dubious analogies with the past or seeking out bolstering quotes from Lenin or Trotsky to justify whatever it wants to do. Neil has the professional historian’s correct disdain for the false analogy, and his argument is all the better for it.
Neil is at his strongest on the question of leadership:
In some respects, of course, many aspects of our party’s organisation and approach have changed since the early 1980s–the size and number of branches, our attitude to participation in electoral alliances, our willingness to stand for full-time union positions–but not the relationship of the CC to the rest of the party. At the heart of this relationship is the idea that the leadership will debate issues amongst themselves, then decide on a course of action and only then inform the membership what this decision is and what it will involve them in doing–although we are of course then invited to ratify the CC’s decisions at Annual Conference.
This is bolstered by John Molyneux:
Two things are crucial here: one is the CC internal united front against dissidents, which has meant that differences within the CC are kept hidden from the membership while any critic is met with an overwhelming rebuttal. I will give a personal example (unimportant in itself and it happened to many others) just to make clear what I mean .Some years ago, at a Party Council, I questioned the estimation and figures given for a demonstration (the Birmingham demo against the closure of Longbridge). I was immediately replied to by five members of the CC, but, of course, given no right of reply to them. The other, less important but still of significance, is tone. Critics can be replied to politically and strong arguments put, without making the victim feel like they never want to speak at an SWP conference or council again. Such practices, once prevalent, have dramatically declined recently. They should not be brought back.
I’m sure plenty of John’s readers can add their own examples. Back to Neil:
Unfortunately, the attitude the CC has taken to avoid the problem [its debilitating fear of a split] is to suppress any debate beyond what it deems a reasonable level, which is usually about the practical or technical application of policies which members of the CC have decided among themselves. But this does not lead to the elimination of differences, just to their internalisation, which in turn leads to cynicism, inactivity and ultimately to comrades leaving the organisation. In effect, it produces the very situation it seeks to avoid, except that the lifeblood of the party is not transfused into another organisation, it simply drains away. The long term corrosive effect of this is actually far more debilitating than any open split would be.
Indeed, and I think one of the big problems with the Cliff legacy is the pas devant les enfants attitude of the CC to the ranks, combined with a myth of CC infallibility in the ranks. This was probably less of a problem when Cliff was alive (though it was hardly insignificant even then), but post-Cliff you end up with a problem of authority. It’s like Hegel’s idea of the enlightened monarch, which works fine if your monarch is Frederick the Great, less well if the man at the top is less able.
Neil has a further, extremely important point on the CC, which is worth quoting at length:
The other argument is that, if comrades are unhappy with the role of the CC, its membership can be changed at conference. But this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership in waiting capable of challenging the CC. Of course, a potential national leadership does exist out in the country–indeed, if it did not, and there were really no cadres who could possibly take over from the core of the CC that has been in place since the early 1980s, then we would have utterly failed in one of our key tasks, which is surely to develop such a leadership. The problem is rather that they are generally operating in isolation from each other, have few means of making themselves known at a national level and are rarely consciously developed.
In fact, with very few exceptions, most of the comrades who have been invited to join the CC since the early 1980s have been student or district organisers–in other words they are drawn from the ranks of the party’s paid officials, whose jobs had previously been to relay the views of the leadership to the members. Now, the organiser’s job is a necessary, difficult and not particularly well paid one. The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role–or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further. With one exception the entire CC consists of comrades who are paid full-timers, “professional revolutionaries”, all of whom live in the same city… Clearly, some current members of the CC would remain as part of virtually any reconfigured body, but not all. Can there be anything more damaging to the idea of revolutionary leadership than the perception that members of what I call the superior part of the CC occupy a sinecure or permanent fixture, that its members will retain their posts–or some post, at any rate–regardless of what they do or fail to do in the exercise of their duties?
And Neil continues:
The CC needs to be reorganised, both in structure and composition. The leadership should at the very least, be weighted as much towards those who are actually leading in workplaces, universities, campaigns, communities and intellectual life, as towards party full-timers. It also needs to reflect the different spatial experiences of the class: the rhythms of political life are different now in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and no decisions about the Britain as a whole can be taken without taking these differences into consideration.
This is very important. The composition of the CC is not simply a pragmatic issue, as it has tended to be taken up to now. The predominant view of the CC is that it is a political leadership and at the same time a management committee made up of the most capable administrators. (Although, even on the latter criterion, a major clearout is indicated. I surely don’t have to rehearse the biographies of current CC members in order to flag up failings in the administration.) These two are hard enough to combine at the best of times, but what’s completely missing is the idea that the CC is, in some sense, a representative body of the party. There is no geographical spread. There is no occupational spread, unless Prof Callinicos is taken to represent the worker members. There is no representation for political minorities. (Cliff and Harman, in years gone by, took it for granted that there would be. And I would certainly be in favour of Molyneux and Davidson’s election to a revamped CC.)
I will now end with John Molyneux, who deals a little with the question of Rees’ removal from the leadership. I have my doubts about John M’s position, which seems to me to be supporting the CC majority in the hope that they will issue in a new period of democracy, but I do think he’s right to flag up that Rees (and Lindsey, and Bambery, and Nineham) have never seen any problem of a lack of democracy in the party. In fact Rees seems to have gloried in the status quo, backed up by his peculiar Lukácsian notion of leadership. Molyneux says:
Obviously John is not the only one responsible for the difficulties in Respect/Left List/Left Alternative etc . In one sense the main responsibility lies with Galloway and co. In another sense it lies with all the CC, and in another sense with all leading party cadre. Nevertheless he was the CC member responsible for this area of work and this carries with it certain consequences when there are a series of mistakes, as I’m sure John, Lindsey, and Chris have had to explain to many a failing organiser in the past. Of course it is ‘personalised’ (in the sense of someone’s personal political record not their personal life) because the election of the CC is about the election of specific persons to lead the party. Fairness doesn’t come into it. No one has a right to be on the CC. The only right involved here is the right of the party membership to elect its leaders and it must elect the people who will serve it best, regardless of ‘fairness’.
That’s actually a very fair way of putting it. John continues:
John [Rees] also makes it clear that he wants ‘firmer’ more ‘decisive’ leadership of the kind he has always been keen to provide. I have always disagreed with John about this. I always disliked those speeches John gave in which he would explain ‘the real nature of political leadership’ and it would turn out to be what he had done recently.
At any rate I think the question of John’s removal from the CC is bound up with the question of improving party democracy because it is seen by the members as asserting the principle that no one is ‘above’ accountability and that is why it is popular in the party.
Well and good. I’ll believe this new democracy when I see it, and I’d be especially interested to see if Swiss Toni and his acolytes over here change their ways, but I wish you the very best of luck. God knows, the SWP has worn out a lot of good will, but if it can change and regenerate, it may yet have a positive role to play in the future, and not just a somewhat illustrious past.