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.