Forgive me for indulging in a little whimsical digression, but I was just thinking there of a scene in The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood where Robin (George Segal) is running after some bad guys, and divers peasants gather round to watch. “Look,” they exclaim, “it’s Ivanhoe!” Whereupon Robin has to stop what he’s doing and patiently explain that Ivanhoe wears black, not green.
And so, by popular demand (well, at least as indicated by the site statistics), we return to the Swips. I’ve been meaning for quite some time to have a look at the Democracy Commission report, because there’s quite a bit in it that’s useful, and perhaps to proffer some constructive thoughts on the matter.
Which feeds into this running theme that on the left, it’s not only a question of what you say and what you do, but how you say and do it. How you say it brings up the importance of tone, and the dreadful frequency of hate speech on the left; there’s also the issue of how we do what we do. If I may, I was struck by something johng said over on SU about this:
The decision to wind down SA and go with Respect was I think a correct decision. The WAY it was done I think was a problem, but at the time (thankfully this is no longer the case) such criticisms would have been regarded as ‘non-political’.
This is, I think, a very important point, regardless of what you think about the proximate issue. Somehow we arrived at this position where, for instance, winning a vote in a campaign to march on this Saturday rather than that one was the “political” issue; while arguing internally about whether it was right to pack a meeting to win that vote was “non-political”. And the extraordinarily un-Leninist view that the internal conduct of the party was the most non-political thing of all. As Cannon explained, in general political questions should take precedence over organisational ones, but the question of the regime is itself a political question.
Which brings me to the DC report, and there’s plenty of meat there. It’s pleasing that the Commission members have taken their job seriously, canvassed a wide range of opinion and obviously had some serious discussions. To be honest, the backlash from the membership post the Respect split probably meant the majority leadership couldn’t have done less, while the Rees-German minority did themselves huge damage – and the party a favour – by setting their faces against democratisation. Let’s skip over the generalisms in the preamble and get stuck in, with the role of the National Committee:
The Democracy Commission believes that the party constitution should be amended [to] make the NC’s decisions binding on the CC. The political reality is that the CC could not ignore or defy NC decisions. Formally recognising this would help highlight the importance of the NC’s role.
At least here we have a recognition that some sort of leadership body is needed that is wider than the dozen or so members of the CC (or even the half-dozen or so core CC members who have been in situ for a very long time). Nor would we want a return to one of the nadirs of the Cliff years, when the NC supinely voted itself out of existence. The task, then, is to have an active and combative NC rather than a rubber stamp – the test will be whether you get an NC with independent-minded members or one full of hand-raisers. There has been sufficient experience of the latter.
What the Respect crisis brought to a head was a tendency on the part of the CC to act on its own, in isolation of the rest of the party – as a vanguard that had lost touch with the rest of the army. What is therefore necessary is a rebalancing of the relationship between the CC and the rest of the party, and, as a crucial part of this, a major strengthening of the role and functioning of the National Committee. This stronger NC should be buttressed by the systematic use of fraction organisation in united fronts as well as trade unions.
But this necessary rebalancing should not be allowed to undermine the importance of the CC as a centralised political leadership that takes the initiative in ‘the national direction of all political and organisational work’. For all the many mistakes the party and the CC have made over the years, the many successes we can be proud of derive crucially from having a strong political leadership.
Translation: the CC can’t go on having the virtually untrammelled power it has hitherto enjoyed, but we don’t want to admit we are actually reducing the power of the CC because that would undermine its authority. Some tweaking of the slate system notwithstanding, it would make sense that the CC would be the body least amenable to reform, no matter what some of its members might prefer.
We then move onto a discussion of the fulltime organisers, and generous tribute is paid to these people who work very hard for very little material reward. It’s not surprising, when virtually the entire CC is made up of fulltimers, with only Lord Callinicos representing the lay membership. But this is an area where serious attention needs to be paid, and where things have been got badly wrong in the past. So we have a defence of the idea that organisers are centrally appointed by the CC, and a dismissal of the old IS practice of electing them:
If we accept that the main role of the organiser is to push through the areas of activity prioritised by the CC, then the organiser must surely be, answerable to, and replaceable by, the CC, not the local comrades.
District Organisers must be able to win respect and support in their districts, but that is not the same thing as winning a popularity contest. If a section of the cadre of a district fall into opposition the organiser should ordinarily be fighting for the agreed national position, not that of local dissidents.
Having said that, a district organiser should be alert to the mood of their district, should have respect for the comrades within it, and be able to feel free to bring concerns from the district back to the CC.
That is as may be, but comrades will be well aware of the culture that exists whereby organisers like to see themselves as the CC’s enforcers in the districts, whose job description does not involve being alert to the local mood but rather stamping on any signs of independence. Moreover, I would argue that, if you’re not going to allow local members to elect their organiser, it would be nice if there was a procedure whereby the local members could vote no confidence in their organiser and remove him. There have been far too many cases of organisers behaving destructively and being backed up by the centre as a matter of course for the comrades to be blithe about this.
Finally some representations from members have talked about organisers not treating members with respect. It is vital that organisers take seriously Cliff’s maxim that every member is gold dust. Members should be treated in a comradely manner at all times.
(Laughs hollowly…) It would also be nice if the central leadership, who are supposed to set an example, took that maxim seriously. And in fact, the comrades seem more concerned about the feelings of the fulltimers:
Having said that, this is a two way process. Comrades in Districts must afford the organiser the same level of respect and comradeship that they would expect to receive. Often the organiser will be young, dedicated, and enthusiastic but will not have the experience of some of the district cadre. However anyone using that experience to patronise, belittle, or undermine the organiser is certainly acting outside the spirit of our tradition.
Given the real balance of forces in the organisation, this is almost grotesque. I have seen, for instance, a 25-year-old organiser literally screaming in the face of a comrade twice her age who thought he had a better idea of what was happening in his own union. I have known an experienced organiser who made it his practice to arrive at meetings half an hour late, then to announce that what had been discussed up to that point could be forgotten about because he had fresh instructions from the centre. Or there are countless stories about organisers who will behave in an arrogant way towards local campaigns when they have only just arrived in an area and really don’t have a clue what is going on. Not that I want to belittle good and dedicated organisers, but this sort of thing is much too common to be put down to a few disgruntled members who don’t get on with their organisers.
Partly it’s a question of getting the right people in the right jobs. If Martin Smith asked me, for instance, I could tell him that Comrade X would make a brilliant industrial organiser but should on no account be put in charge of a party district, and if he was put in charge of a district it would soon become a hotbed of dissidence. It would also be an idea to try and avoid appointing people with severe personality disorders. Organisers should be encouraged to have some modesty and humility, to be good listeners above all, and not to regard themselves as pocket commissars sent out to whip the stage army into shape. Of course, the CC sets the tone here.
There is further discussion about CC members operating in “united fronts”, where the uncharitable might be tempted to see a reference to the factionalists at Stop the War; some sensible stuff about industrial and student fractions; and a rambling discussion about use of t’internet, which at least marks an advance on the days when Alex Callinicos was arguing that anyone working with a VDU was middle class. There is here too a belated acknowledgement that technology has vitiated some of the old practices of secrecy – all right, there is some genuinely sensitive information about finance or people’s personal details, but I’ve never seen why political arguments had to be kept secret. If your conference bulletins are going to be leaked to the Weekly Worker anyway, why not publish the bloody things? Indeed, if memory serves the party did publish its pre-conference bulletins as a supplement to Socialist Review at some point in the 1980s.
Oh, and I can’t pass by this pure piece of comedy gold, about the fraternal conduct of discussions:
We debate in order to decide and act – and (this) in no way precludes vigorous political argument, but vigorous political argument should not include personal denigration or abuse. There should also be some regard for proportionality: erring, i.e. Minority, comrades should not in general be crushed to the point of humiliation. All party meetings – branch, district, national, CC , conference – should be conducted and chaired with this in mind.
Quite. But my view is that the culture will be much more difficult to change than the formal rules, and the culture of the organisation has some deeply weird features which new members often take several years to figure out. One is that, for an organisation whose formal politics are all about spontaneity and the rank and file and socialism from below – and an organisation that doesn’t have much in the way of formal structures – the SWP is intensely conscious of status and pecking order. And this seems to have no rhyme nor reason to it.
If I may, let’s compare the Socialist Party, whose structures in some ways echo those of the official labour movement. It would be absurd to say there was no pecking order in the SP, but it’s a more or less transparent one, where status is conferred by belonging to various party bodies – national, regional or branch leadership, various specialist roles etc – and is closely linked to experience and time served. I may joke about Peter Taaffe being general secretary for 45 years and counting, but it makes sense in that Peter has been around longer than just about anyone else and has a unique breadth of experience. And people who have been in both the SWP and SP comment that in the SP, for all its more overt formality, it’s much easier to fraternise with the leadership. (This was not the case in the heyday of Militant, but that’s another story.)
No, you have quite a weird set-up where there is the formal central leadership, elected (almost always in an uncontested election) at conference, below that there are the appointed organisers who sort of function as feudal fiefs in their districts, and below that a very informal, miasmic set-up of cliques, personal relationships, informal networks and shifting in and out groups. This is why, by the way, disciplinary procedures often seem so arbitrary – if you belong to the in group you can get away with almost anything, if you belong to the out group then the slightest infraction can see you being summarily kicked out. And if you move from the in group to the out group… well, look at John Rees being pilloried for things that his latter-day opponents defended for years.
This comes into play with the current faction fight. I commend the position of Comrade Harrods, and will add a few points of my own. Some comrades are arguing at this point that there are two tasks facing the SWP – the first is to defeat the Rees-German faction, the second is to get away from the practice of using disciplinary procedures to resolve political arguments. I think the two of these are distinct tasks, and at some points may be antagonistic.
The factional issue, for me, should be about politics rather than personalities. When it comes to John and Lindsey, I really don’t give a stuff if they retain their membership or not come February. But there is a strong argument that the party needs to make a break from the sort of RCP-style voluntarism they have come to represent. (Which was also present to some considerable extent under Cliff, although the CC’s need to do a Thomas à Kempis On The Imitation Of Cliff routine may stop them fully acknowledging that.) I’d be in favour of that as a precondition of a more healthy organisation, the same way as the Catholic Church in Ireland will never renew itself unless it makes a definitive break from Jansenism – though there’s a similar issue of whether you really can purge something so encoded in the DNA.
Now, on the issue of discipline. There are, as we know, formal procedures. I used to know control commission chair Pat Stack reasonably well, and can attest that Pat is a thoroughly decent comrade who will weigh each case on its merits, and in no way allow himself to be influenced by hating John Rees’ guts. Pat, I am certain, will be sure that minority supporters will get a fair trial before being hanged.
But it’s telling that we can even be flippant about such matters. There’s such a thing, you know, as the slippery slope, and in the case of IS I think it can probably be traced back to Cliff’s bright idea in 1968 to bring John O’Mahoney into the group. It is a mark of the then liberal regime in IS that it took three whole years to get rid of the Mahoneyites when Healy and Grant had taken far less time to dispense with John’s services; it is also true that the regime was much less liberal when they left. (John, of course, has long since graduated from serial expellee to expeller himself.) After that there’s a constant search for “tightening”, with the so-called Right Opposition (progenitors of the later RCG and RCP) being expelled for no reason I can recall other than being a pain in the arse; the big purges of the mid-70s; then, what should have rung serious alarm bells if nothing else had, the “squadist” purge. I say this not to defend the squads, who really were a menace, but to point out that there was no squadist faction, the ideology of “squadism” was almost entirely a straw man of Cliff’s own construction, and by their own account those who went on to form Red Action had no contact with each other until after their expulsion. Sending them expulsion letters in prison was a particular low.
So the current fight takes place in an atmosphere where the leadership hasn’t had to face a factional challenge for maybe thirty years, and where the apparat has become accustomed to expulsion as a way of ensuring political homogeneity. This is not good. Even from the cosmetic viewpoint, expulsions look bad unless there’s a very good reason for them. Expulsions are dumb politics in a faction fight. They are doubly dumb if they are done ahead of conference on vague grounds of “factionalism”, where there is a recognised faction. (I don’t know the details of Alex or Clare‘s cases, but as an outsider there’s nothing that looks compelling to me.) There may be a certain Sopranos appeal in sending a message to John and Lindsey by picking off their followers, but it still looks really bad. Nor does it cut much ice to point out that the current “Left Platform” were the people who resisted the Democracy Commission and all its works and pomps. John and Lindsey as born-again democrats may look absurd, but a leadership that manages to turn them into martyrs would be really congenitally stupid, and only serve to prove to outsiders that the shiny new regime of Democratic Martinism is more of the same.
Again, it’s not just a question of what you do, but how you do it. As Madam Miaow is fond of pointing out, Trotsky wrote a book called Their Morals And Ours, not Their Morals And We Ain’t Got None. A break from the bad habits of the past does not necessarily require John Rees’ head on a stick, though that may be an incidental bonus; more heartening would be a demonstrative break from this cod-Machiavellian attitude that says that, once the correct line is decided, all methods are righteous in pushing it through. If John wants to be a martyr, it would be dumb to give him an alibi; the smart move would be to let him immolate himself. Selah.