The voice is the voice of Esau, but the words are the words of Yahweh


If one may return for a brief moment to the discussion in the SWP, there is a rather important point that’s worth underlining. It is of course welcome that improving party democracy is on the agenda, for the first time in more than a generation, and that the CC majority actually realises that there is a democratic deficit. Although, having said that, how much democracy the ranks get will depend on them sustaining some pressure on the Curia.

But here’s my point, and this is where I think Chris Harman hits the nail on the head. It’s not only a question of structure, although structures are indeed important, but more importantly of the culture. It’s a bit like New Labour liberalising the licensing laws – you can extend opening hours easily enough, but creating a more civilised drinking culture is much more difficult. As the Renaissance Man puts it:

It is not that comrades lack democratic rights in the abstract… The problem is that our structures have not in practice encouraged people to participate actively in decision making. There has been a tendency for comrades to rely on the CC to make decisions, even if this is in part because on very important decisions, such as the attitude to the anti-capitalist movement and the initiative to launch Stop the War, they could see that the CC was correct. The result is precisely the vicious circle of people leaving decisions to the CC and CC members falling into the easy trap of assuming that only they have the capacity to make the decisions. This is what we have to deal with. We need a national leadership which is wider than just the full time members of the CC.

This could come from Chris’ “Party and Class”, which is a problematic essay – especially in the way Chris assumes that centralism must always trump democracy in the last analysis in order for anything to be done – but which does at least contain the warning that you must have an educated and critical cadre, which is the only way to safeguard the party against an arbitrary and capricious leadership.

There’s a serious issue here, though, about the actually existing culture of deference and how it arises. Neil Davidson and John Molyneux point out, and Alex Callinicos concedes, the CC’s long-established practice of keeping disagreements internal to itself, and of maintaining a united face in front of the members. The first thing to say is that this peculiar method of operating, where the CC has a private discussion, puts its position en bloc to the party, then the party has a private discussion, then puts its position en bloc to the class, has nothing in common with the practice of the Bolsheviks under Lenin. The second thing is that, if the CC remains united on even the most minor of issues, it’s very difficult to challenge any pronunciamentos from above.

Now, you put that together with the formal structures, or lack thereof. The late John Sullivan dealt with this in a slightly flippant manner:

The SWP’s leaders have a keen appreciation of the dynamics of their group, and have evolved an organisational structure which is remarkably well suited to its functioning. It bears little resemblance to a traditional labour movement bureaucracy and there is no imitation of the Labour Party’s baroque edifice of local/district and regional committees. In fact there are no organisational intermediaries between the central bureaucracy and the local leaderships of branches. Such a structure, accentuated by the absence of a comprehensive educational programme, means that the group’s publications play the key role in maintaining group identity and doctrinal cohesion. The process is remarkably libertarian as, although a line is elaborated and spelled out in Socialist Worker, potential dissidents are not instructed on the line by authorised inquisitors. They may even, if they wish, object to it and write outlining an alternative. However, there are no forums apart from the desperately low level branch discussions where alternative policies can be discussed. Consequently, the group whose ideology most attacks bureaucracy and praises rank and file initiative has a bigger gap between the leadership and the rank and file than does any of its rivals. Some of the leaders privately express distaste for the role of enlightened despots which is imposed on them.

Well, we can see some evidence of the latter emerging. But one telltale manifestation of this problem with the culture is identified by the Harmanator:

Let’s have more from comrades who think the positions we express on particular issues are wrong or simplistic. I personally was bit disappointed when I wrote what I thought was a provocative article on neoliberalism and no one responded to it.

I don’t think Chris is being at all disingenuous here when he laments the unresponsiveness of the rank and file. You will recall that the priests of Baal expressed similar dissatisfaction at their god’s failure to render service. The big problem here is the deference to gurus, which is sometimes harmless, sometimes leads simply to follies like the ten-year campaign against postmodernism (based on a book where Alex’s grasp of postmodernism was, to say the least, questionable) and sometimes to an out-and-out failure to challenge obvious mistakes coming from above.

You see this in the tendency for articles in the party press to be taken by the comrades as representing “the line”, no matter what the subject matter. This results in all sorts of informal “lines” on all sorts of abstruse subjects – art, science, philosophy, anthropology, you name it. The older, more experienced and perhaps more cynical comrade, who is aware of the party’s pick ‘n’ mix attitude to ideology, is perfectly free to decide that, for instance, Chris Harman’s views on anthropology are not to be taken terribly seriously. But there’s still a tendency to hesitate before openly disagreeing with an established guru. This is particularly so if your district organiser comes from that shallow end of the gene pool who actually think the party should have a line on anthropology, and expect all members to agree with it.

Ah yes, this is the other issue, the fulltimers and the renewal of the leadership. Here’s Davidson:

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.

And here is Sullivan, from more than twenty years ago:

The disadvantage of such an organisational model is that the SWP has no mechanism for promoting a cadre which will renew the existing leadership. Rejuvenation depends on the central leadership co-opting younger elements through a process of literary endeavour. The process is not unlike an academic selection procedure and allowed Cliff to maintain his team at a reasonable strength until the late 1970s, since when it has been visibly ageing.

This is very important, not just in terms of the narrowness of the actually existing leadership, but in terms of where future leaders are to come from. It’s easy to bash the organisers, and Neil provides a useful corrective to that, but it’s worth pointing out some common features. These are generally young people recruited straight out of college, with some book learning but little experience. They are appointed by the CC, not elected by their districts, and their job is to represent the views of the CC to their districts. (Theoretically there should be a vice versa, but usually there isn’t.) There is a long track record of organisers acting as feudal fiefs in their areas, setting themselves up as enforcers whether or not the CC has given them any such brief, clashing unnecessarily with experienced cadre and, most damaging of all, the absence of formal structures tends to foster clique politics.

This is, you know, something of a tendency on the British left, especially amongst those groups who used to make some money from commercial printing. There is a habit of thinking that a big fulltime apparat is absolutely essential. Famously, in the 1980s, Militant (who at the time were pretending not to exist) had more fulltime organisers than the actual Labour Party. One should really question whether any particular area, especially where you have an established cadre, really needs a fulltimer.

This isn’t just a question of human material. Many of us can cite examples of people turning up in fulltime positions who had no obvious qualifications for the job. Or of others whose only qualifications were being the drinking buddy, bed partner or child of this or that leading cadre. But questionable personnel decisions are only the half of it, and a CC more sensitive to the ranks could minimise that. More important is to consider what the apparat is actually for. Back in the 1970s, when the American SWP (Jack Barnes prop.) became cash-rich for various reasons, Jack decided that the time had come to invest in lots of fulltimers for the mass party around the corner. Enormous numbers of organisers were hired, and when you counted the party headquarters and the print shop, something like a quarter of the membership were on the payroll. George Novack, who should have known better, boasted of an apparat that could cater for a party of 100,000 – when the party had perhaps 2500 members even if you included the YSA. That these fulltimers worked hard and were paid a pittance was neither here nor there – the effect on democracy should be obvious. To borrow from parliamentary parlance, it creates a payroll vote.

If the democracy commission is to make some serious impact, these are, in my opinion, two of the most crucial issues. Reducing the weight of the apparat versus the members is vital, unpleasant as it may be for some of the people whose sinecures might have to go. Creating a more open and vibrant culture is more difficult, but consideration should be given to what measures might stimulate it, especially in use of modern communications technology. Once you get over the notion that Iskra represents some sort of paradigm of revolutionary communications, you might get some useful ideas.


  1. Neil said,

    January 5, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    “Famously, in the 1980s, Militant (who at the time were pretending not to exist) had more fulltime organisers than the actual Labour Party.”

    That’s true unfortunately. I don’t think we would do the same thing again when we return to the numbers we had in the 80’s.

    Despite our large apparatus in the 80’s there is one key difference between ourselves and the SWP then and now. Only rank and file members elected from the branches can vote at conference or be elected to the appeals committee that deals with diciplinary matters. Fulltimers only get a consultative vote at conference.

    I agree though that fostering a culture of debate is the key factor in a healthy democratic regime and is alot more difficult to bring about than a change in the organisation. A good start for the SWP would be teaching their new recruits the basics of Marxism. According to ex-members of the SWP who have joined us, such education is completely absent for new members.

  2. Pete Baker said,

    January 5, 2009 at 11:52 pm


    “The first thing to say is that this peculiar method of operating, where the CC has a private discussion, puts its position en bloc to the party, then the party has a private discussion, then puts its position en bloc to the class, has nothing in common with the practice of the Bolsheviks under Lenin.”

    I’d appreciate an elaboration on where “this peculiar method of operating” differed from “the Bolsheviks under Lenin” but, more particularly, I’d appreciate an elaboration of how “this peculiar method of operating” compares with certain modern [Irish] political parties.

    Feel free to replace “the class” with “the electorate” at any point.

  3. Madam Miaow said,

    January 6, 2009 at 1:04 am

    A good start for the SWP would be teaching their new recruits the basics of Marxism.

    A better start would be to make sure Glorious Leaders know the basics of Marxism … in practice.

  4. The Digger said,

    January 6, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Neil, not sure what is so key about SP fulltimers only getting a consultative vote. Fulltimers in the SWP don’t get a vote at all, consultative or otherwise.

  5. james said,

    January 6, 2009 at 2:09 am

    “Bed Partners”, now there’s a phrase I like…

  6. John Palmer said,

    January 6, 2009 at 8:49 am

    This is a very reasoned analysis of the underlying causes of the vast democratic deficit at work within the SWP. You rightly identify the culture and practices throughout all levels of membership which underpin this – not merely the formal structures of “democratic centralism.” Of course things were not always like that. Until the big purges of the mid 1970s there was a vibrant tradition of internal debate within the organisation in which the positions of both individuals and groups were publicly known. Of course there was no idealistic “before the fall” era free from delusion and error. But, in large measures the internal debates and differences (over the EU, over Ireland and especially over how to work in rank and file TU organisation etc) had a dynamic imparted by the significant involvement of the International Socialists (as the SWP was then known) in the broader labour movement – notably in the shop stewards and rank and file movements. The closing down of all this – preliminary to the declaration of an “Open Party” – arose because a/ the SWP grossly misunderstood the consequences of the systemic defeats suffered by organised workers over the next 30 years b/ in reaction the SWP developed a model of centralism that owes more to the Zinovievite tradtion than anything else. The trouble is that the world has changed now far, far more than the SWP (and most other far left tendencies) recognise. Coming to terms with these changes will necessarily involve a daunting degree of questioning analysis of the contemporary relevencer of some basic traditions of Leninism.

  7. Mike said,

    January 6, 2009 at 9:56 am

    John wrote “the internal debates and differences had a dynamic imparted by the significant involvement of the International Socialists (as the SWP was then known) in the broader labour movement”.

    The above is absolutely vital but were the SWP to make a Turn to the Class, as they must in my view, even then we cannot ignore the fact that elements of a radical democratic culture within the unions and workplaces are massively underdeveloped in comparison with say 1973. Which cannot but mean that a cadre educated in the basic ideas of Marxism as socialism from below is more important than in previous periods.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    January 6, 2009 at 10:16 am

    And Pete is of course correct that we in Ireland have our own conspiratorial tradition. Which, however, is oddly not restricted to those parties that actually were armed conspiracies not many years ago…

  9. David Ellis said,

    January 6, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Excellent blogging Splintered. A serious analysis peppered with seriously funny observations.


    `Despite our large apparatus in the 80’s there is one key difference between ourselves and the SWP then and now. Only rank and file members elected from the branches can vote at conference or be elected to the appeals committee that deals with diciplinary matters. Fulltimers only get a consultative vote at conference.’

    But like the SWP the SP gives itself all the airs and graces of THE party of the working class instead of being honest about what it is, a small, self-serving propaganda sect. Like the SWP it has serious delusions of grandeur. Ten people could produce the material the SP or the SWP produce. In fact, I reckon Lenin’s Tomb is responsible for at least 50% of the SWP’s weekly written output. These sects are the product of the years of Cold War stability. They quickly forged separate identities for themselves and quirky little bits of centrist theory (Cliff’s state capitalism, Healy’s mangled version of dialectics, Matgamna’s seriously reactionary support for colonial workers prejudices against the indigenous population) to differentiate themselves from the others and warn off heretics. Not participating in electoral politics was one way in which the sect leaders avoided scrutiny and discipline. This was a tidy living and also a chance to be worshipped. The SWP for instance will never stand in its own name in elections 1. because it is too small and 2. because its financial dealings would be exposed and 3. because it wouldn’t know what to do even if it got elected. When these sects get too big they engage in bouts of incredible self-sabotage which is why they are obsessed with the numbers. Boasting they are about to reach 10,000 members or some such is not the act of celebration it appears but an unconscious signal for a massive purge and splits and new self-sustaining small-time sects emerge headed by `professional’ revolutionaries with their own version of `Marxist’ theory. These sects knew their place in the Cold War world and exactly what their jobs were. There are unknown knowns i.e. the unconscious as Zizek added to Cheney’s famous list. The biggest bureaucratic sect of course was the old CPGB with its massive income from the Soviet Union and many top jobs in the trade union bureaucracy where they acted as the policeman’s policeman (the bureaucracy policed the working class and the Stalinists policed the bureaucracy).

    The SWP will learn nothing from the forthcoming split as the SP learned nothing from its. They will live to screw up another day. Or will they? Since the Cold War ended these self-serving sects with interests separate and opposed to those of the general working class movement have been exploding, often fatally, one after another in the new conditions. The grounds for opportunist sectarianism are rapidly disappearing just as are the grounds for opportunism proper. The Labour and Trade Union bureaucracy is itself, as a whole, living on fumes. The super profits of imperialism are not so super any more as the Third World fights back or is reduced to an unexploitable mess and the massive monopolists start to confront each other seriously again over a diminishing cake. A sect cannot find the stable ground it needs to thrive and survive. But these things will not simply disappear as Marx warned. Sectism, like opportunism, will continually try to establish and re-establish itself in the working class movement even as the old examples implode or spin off to the far right. There are those who will take advantage of genuine sectarian moods in the working class at times of extreme agitation to establish their little self-serving fiefdoms when the movement recedes. What’s the best we can hope for from the SWP?. Ideally a group of 50 or 60 comrades independent of the SWP’s only legal faction, the apparatus, will emerge and find their way back to Respect where they could work in an exemplary fashion for the furtherance of revolutionary socialism disciplined by the need to participate in elections, learn politics and to embed themselves in working class communities and organisations. Yes, of course, participating in elections carries with it the danger of opportunist accommodation to the system but there are plenty of examples of ultra-rightists emerging from the sects. Hopefully, if it keeps up the level of exemplary work it has shown to date in the pro-Gaza demos, Respect, being the only alternative electoral option, will soon be able to stop calling itself a project and start calling itself a movement .

  10. The Digger said,

    January 6, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Mr Ellis you need to get a grip of reality.

    1. The SWP has stood in ts own name in elections in the past and was an instrumental part in the launching of Respect because it saw the possibility of building an electoral alternative to New Labour.
    2. We don’t don’t fear any exposure of financial dealings.
    3. Michael Lavalette is an SWP member and a Councillor in preston and by all accounts does an excellant job on both local and international issues.

    And for the record the SP has elected Councillors as well who seem to know what they are doing.

    Any organisation that relied on you to produce any material would need to employ a large army of fact checkers.

  11. David Ellis said,

    January 6, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I don’t think there is anything dodgy about SWP finances. The problem is that the apparatus accumulates it and spends it as it sees fit without any internal checks and balances or any external ones either because it doesn’t face the discipline of being involved electorally. I think Michael was elected for SA wasn’t he and I’m sure he does do an excellent job.

  12. A said,

    January 7, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    “I don’t think there is anything dodgy about SWP finances”

    Oh dear.

    Maybe we should ask what the ISO thinks of how the SWP spent funds for the IST.

  13. Mike said,

    January 8, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Is ‘David Ellis’ a cliched ortho-Trot with no real experience of either workers struggles or the far left or am I mistaken?

  14. David Ellis said,

    January 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    No, you are quite right Mike. I’m actually in year five at Eton and have been doing mainly latin and `The Revolution Betrayed’ with Mr Thompson’s class.

  15. Mike said,

    January 10, 2009 at 12:25 am

    I’m sorry chummy but some of the guff you come out with is way out of touch with the real world. You rabbit on about ‘the Third World’ as if nothing had happened in the world economy since Lenin wrote his thick pamphlet on imperialism. In the meantime ‘Third World’ capitalists have come to own chunks of capital located in the imperial metropoles. Check out the Tatas for pitys sake.

    PS I doubt that Respect, if it survives the year, will receive any further renegades from socialism after the SWP dumps John ‘Dead Man’ Rees.

  16. David Ellis said,

    January 10, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Lenin `thick’? Interesting or do you must mean thick compared to you.

  17. Mike said,

    January 12, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Grow up boy. Lenin has been dead for a long time. Things do change you know.

  18. skidmarx said,

    January 12, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Would you understand better if he’d called it a “thin” book? Or would you then want to claim that Mike and I were starting a “Proud To Be Stout” campaign?

  19. Mike said,

    January 13, 2009 at 12:48 am

    No fair! I know I need to lose a bit of weight skid but…

    Oh well time for bed.

  20. David Ellis said,

    January 13, 2009 at 1:49 am

    `Grow up boy. Lenin has been dead for a long time. Things do change you know.’


  21. Mike said,

    January 13, 2009 at 8:21 am

    He’s still dead boyo and you have still failed to answer the points I raised.

  22. David Ellis said,

    January 13, 2009 at 9:21 am

    You’ve raised no point. You;ve merely stated that Lenin is thick, dead and irrelevant. You must be one clever mofo.

  23. David Ellis said,

    January 13, 2009 at 10:39 am

    On second thoughts I do see where you are coming from and why you despise Lenin. In your schema there is only the global ruling class and the global working class and anybody who raises subtleties around self-determination, the national question, colonialism etc is disturbing your little schema and is therefore on the side of the global ruling class. I suppose you find the pesky Palestinian resistance annoying. If only they caved we could get on with the global revolution. I think I’ll stick to the `thick, dead, irrelevant’ Lenin over a fat child-man like you.

  24. Mike said,

    January 13, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    And you my chum are illiterate. I described Lenins pamphlet on Imperialsm as thick! A point skidmarx echoed but you are too silly to grasp. Nowhere have I espoused any of the views you attribute to me.

    Now explain why if in Lenins Imperialism the oppressing nations export capital to the colonial world is it that today the reverse is true? I instance the case of the Tatas. There are many other examples.

    Now off to earn a living, alas!

  25. David Ellis said,

    January 13, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    `Now off to earn a living, alas!’

    Blimey, you found a bigger idiot than you.

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