Guest post by Martin Pravda and Keith
They are, to put it bluntly, enemies of production. Production makes them uncomfortable. You never know where you are with production; production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out. And they themselves don’t want to produce. They want to play the apparatchik and exercise control over other people. Every one of their criticisms contains a threat.
BrechtThe largest group of revolutionary socialists in Britain is falling apart. Not because of major shifts in the ‘balance of forces’, nor because of some new ‘turn’ in strategy or tactics but because of its leadership’s appalling response to members coming forward with rape allegations.
No one could’ve predicted that it would end like this and we can’t ignore the ‘balance of forces’ or the ‘structural’ explanations on offer (oftentimes referred to as ‘history’), but it has been shockingly bleak to watch individuals that we’ve known for years – decades in some cases – retreat behind explanations that start in 1976/89/99… for something so vile and immediate, something right there in front of you, that'll ultimately destroy the party’s reputation.
So much is thrown into doubt. The chasm between formal commitments and actual behaviour seems unbridgeable and for many it will mean abandoning left politics and political activism for good. For others there are the after-effects of shock and disgust while the work to explain the roots of the crisis continues in order to avoid another.
The authors of this article are from separate generations in the party’s history, with a 20 year gap between our experiences. The creation of the International Socialist Network has brought together members and former members of the SWP from very different periods, who have witnessed different shapes and turns in the Party’s strategy of the years. There has been much discussion as to where it all went wrong.
We started with that Brecht quote to home in on an aspect of the causal explanations that we find wanting from much of the recent debate: the “subjective element”. What is it in the character of a certain type of political activist that leads them to inexplicable conclusions (lying women, police spies, agents of the bourgeoisie)? Can you wire up a convincing story that starts with epochal trends and ends with so-and-so’s [insert this week’s most pernicious hack] latest statement?
One explanation is bureaucratism.
John Game’s recent contribution challenges rigid conceptions of “Leninism” as practiced by the SWP. He mentions the increasing levels of substitutionism which took precedent over the party’s strategy during the downturn of the 1980s, and which continued to dominate – despite the ever-changing political circumstances the party was operating in – throughout the 1990s to the present day.
He points out how a bureaucratic leadership emerged, taking ownership of all decision making processes within the party, undermining the principles of “socialism from below” which had first attracted people to it.
John suggests that the roots of these problems are in the very existence of a well-organised central structure. He argues for an organisation “without a single full-timer”, such positions of formal leadership would inevitably lead an organisation towards bureaucratic substitutionism, so should be avoided.
However, while in the SWP’s case full time workers have taken up such a role, it is problematic to place all the blame on party structures and to write-off any form of central leadership all together.
Most members of the SWP were first drawn towards the party because of its organisational prowess. As John accepts in his account, it was the party’s involvement in real campaigns and struggles which made it stand out for his generation - from the Anti Nazi League and Rock against Racism to the support and solidarity campaigns in the Miners’ Strike – the party was centrally involved, and this required a high degree of organisation.
One of those “stand out” elements was the Party’s reputation for covering every spare wall with its flyposters and stickers and for producing a plethora of campaign-specific pamphlets, papers and magazines. All that took an organisational apparatus to produce, distribute and sustain. It is no exaggeration to say that the Party visually dominated demonstrations, either against the Nazis or during the Miners Strike and on into the anti-Poll Tax campaign. At one point in the late 1980s the BBC phoned the Party’s print shop for sample fly posters to make Albert Square look more authentic!
The apparatus [Party full time workers] was, if anything, smaller at these peaks of struggle than it is now, but it was an apparatus. Individual members would pay split subs (divided between the local branch and the party nationally), if you were lucky (and no irony here) your district might have a full time organiser, that organiser would report into a national office where campaign or routine functions (paper distribution, industrial department, SW journalists) were organised and where CC members had regional responsibilities as well as particular industrial fractions to look after.
Local branches had their own micro-apparatus. Members would take responsibility for organising both public and workplace sales of SW, the Review and ISJ. There would be a bookstall organiser and someone responsible for following up with contacts made who’d expressed interest. Someone would organise “educationals” (essentially book clubs with a focus on a pertinent bit of the canon) and someone looked after the money. A healthy SWP branch looked and felt like a mini-party in your town.
They were shut down in the mid-1990s, but we’ll come back to the lessons for abolishing that particular part of the Party’s structure.
For today’s generation of SWP members it was again the party’s organisational structures that were able to draw activists together. The wave of anti-cuts and fees protests and University occupations were spontaneous, and the SWP was in no way an initial leading force in this. The party was however able to build quite significantly out of the movement.
As it was in the 1980s, a political and financial crisis was deepening and social democratic parties continued to offer no answers. Those who were involved in political campaigns saw revolutionary socialism as a very appealing solution. The SWP were able to print pamphlets arguing for socialist ideas, organise meetings and rallies across the country, and put on coaches to other important campaigns such as the Unite against Fascism protests against the EDL.
While the party failed to gain leadership of the movement, which it misguidedly attempted to do with subsitutionist fronts such as the Education Activist Network, it was able to grow as people saw the need for a radical organisation to pull things together.
The Party gave this new layer of membership the apparatus to organise and encourage others to be involved. It required organised structures and a leadership of sorts to make this happen. Someone needed to write the pamphlets, someone needed to print them. Someone needed to organise meetings, someone needed to book the rooms for them. Someone needed to advertise the anti-fascist protests, someone needed to get people on the coaches. The number of people who become drawn to socialist politics can quickly become overwhelming when spontaneous movements arise, as was the case with the student protests in 2010. Having full time workers and a body of organisers was crucial in making sure that everything that needed to happen did.
However, the full time workers and leadership have, over a period of time, assumed an increasingly bureaucratic role within the organisation to the point where party decisions are made almost exclusively by full time members of the Central Committee, and these decisions are wholly unaccountable. It is too simplistic however to simply lay the blame for this on the very existence of a central structure.
Some blame “the balance of class forces”.
We were already on the back foot in the 1980s and the decline has continued. Not catastrophically but it has continued. The defeat of the Miners paved the way for wholesale privatisation of key industrial sectors, the rise of the right inside the Labour Party and a new combat model for the ruling class. However, the deliberate isolation of the Miners dispute by the trade union leaderships also limited the negative effects. Key sections of workers in rail and the civil service won disputes during and immediately after the strike. The anti-Poll Tax campaign was a huge success and, after shattering the Tory Party we got Blairism and (by chance) a mini-boom in the economy.
The non-descript ‘90s was a tough time for the SWP [note: neither author was in the Party during this period, one was “in the wilderness” and the other had just started primary school]. The Party’s ‘official’ perspective was summed up in Cliff’s formulation “the 1930s in slow motion”. It was desperate, Cliff was obviously nearing the end of his tenure, there was an enormous amount of scrabbling around for quick-wins and most of them were quite destructive.
First came the micro-branches. The canny idea here was that big branches has somehow ossified and needed a shake up, so you took a city branch with 30-40 people meeting in it every week and spread it across the borough or county so that you then had far more branches. They met in people’s front rooms, average attendance 4-6 and lots of staring at each other’s feet.
Then came branch abolition. The membership were still acting as a ‘conservative bloc’ so now they wouldn’t be allowed to meet at all, save to pick up the paper, read a bullet-point list of ‘to do’s and sell tickets for some London event or other.
Then Cliff died after leaving the family business, catastrophically, to Rees and German. Had Callinicos blocked with Harman during this phase/period the world would, most certainly, be positively different. But he didn’t and so the Party got ‘The Project’: The break-out strategy combining electoralism and opportunism by various turns and… well, we know the rest.
Of course, there is nothing in these transformations which is necessarily inherent to all forms of central organisation. It was the self-imposed bureaucratic nature of the SWP’s leadership, the way it positioned itself at the head of the Party, the disengagement it forced onto the membership with the “not in front of the children” approach which forced these shifts. This is not how organised structures within a socialist organisation or even a leadership within it has to work.
Instead of throwing away the very concept of central structures and losing the important functioning role it can play - simply because the SWP let theirs go rotten - we should instead invent a type of leadership which is both useful and accountable to the membership it serves. Theoretically, paid workers and elected bodies for a socialist organisation should be servant to its membership and if this was put into practice the role it would play could be extremely positive.
There is always the need for someone to take a lead on a particular task. In our network for example, while we are nowhere near a size that requires any sort of paid full timer, there is still the need for a central leadership.
On a national level, someone will need to overlook the blog, moderate the forum, keep together contact details, organise childcare and rooms for our meetings, sort out transport and organise places for members to stay overnight etc. There are plenty of day-to-day tasks that need sorting and without real structures or an elected body taking a lead it’s impossible to see how all of this will get done.
These “leaders” of course would be democratically decided, act transparently and be accountable. With the email lists, blogs and message boards this is actually very easy, if not somewhat inevitable. Oh, and money. The organisation's finances need to be available for review by the membership in whatever level of detail required.
These are the [Dark Side] mechanisms where regular report backs can be made, where members can raise questions or put forward suggestions instantly. With regular national meetings these bodies can be discussed, debated and fully assessed by all of the membership. This way a leadership of sorts can be both scrutinised and be best placed at task with ideas from around the country to aid their work.
Such a central body could of course only be a backbone for regional groups, where a similar leadership of sorts is required to cover the local tasks. The key to holding this all together is the nature of the relationship between all these different structures. Local organising bodies should be subservient to local membership and national bodies should be subservient to federal groups.
These of course are just a few loose suggestions, but the key point is that a national organisation could quite easily function in this way without the need for a “party line” imposed by an unaccountable central committee. We aren’t going there but we do need an organising council/panel/board/committee.
Revolutionary organisations that have attempted to exist without any central structures or leadership always ultimately fail in their objectives. Even the Anarcho Syndicalist mass organisation the CNT - who completely rejected Leninist ideas - realised the need to have a sophisticated central body with a layer of paid workers.
There is a real need to collectively decide exactly what being a member or associate of the IS Network actually entails. If we want to keep it simply as a talking group, then it is fine to reject these structures. If however, as John and others have suggested, we want the organisation to play a practical functioning role for activists to help build and organise in class struggle – we must accept that centralisation and an accountable leadership is a must. We feel it is crucial that such an organisation is built. Victor Serge perhaps best put it in a pamphlet reaching out to anarchist groups during the Russian Revolution:
Instead of being a subjective and utopian doctrine, the possession of tiny sectarian groupings, [Revolutionaries] should embrace the working class and revolutionary movement as a reality and not as a myth.