After the uprising of the 10th of March
The National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party
Had Party Notes emailed out to the comrades
Stating that the Party
Had forfeited the confidence of the Central Committee
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the Central Committee
To dissolve the Party
And elect another?
- After Bertolt Brecht, “Die Lösung”
Things have been moving along quite rapidly in the past week or so, what with mass resignations and the new IS Network being formed. Notwithstanding the Central Committee’s apparent belief that it can magic away reality by a gerrymandered conference vote – and this is yet another demonstration of the current CC’s rabbit-in-the-headlights weakness – objective reality continues to have an effect.
The flow of disclosures about the SWP’s increasingly cultish internal life has not ceased, either. Phil BC has this genuinely revolting post [trigger warning: do not read while eating], which is all the more disturbing when you realise, given the occupational makeup of the SWP, that there were very likely teachers involved. Moreover, there are other disclosures still to come which will make this look mild. The SWP leadership don’t seem to realise that there are a lot of people out there who have a lot of stories, and who aren’t under party discipline any more. This may not make sense to the Charlie Kimbers of this world who reason like “She isn’t a party member any more; therefore she can’t make a complaint to the Disputes Committee; therefore the incident which may have been complained about never happened”, but that’s the way it is in the real world.
But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about bureaucracy; what Bagehot might have termed the efficient part of the party’s constitution, as opposed to the dignified part (conference, Marxism etc). Because, if we’re looking back and asking ourselves how the hell the party got this way, it’s important to anatomise the beast. Full disclosure: I have never licked whipped cream from the naked body of a CC member, which may be why I never got offered a job at the Centre.
Whence the bureaucracy arises
It would be a digression too far, I think, to go into an in-depth discussion right here of what the SWP means by “Leninism”, which is only tangentially connected to what Lenin was trying to do a century ago, and doesn’t take into account that the “Leninist theory of the party” is itself a myth. Suffice to say that the SWP’s peculiar approach to party-building, which came together as a more or less coherent whole in the mid-1970s and was refined in the 1980s, is regarded within the party as exemplifying a timeless “Leninism”. Well, most Leninist groups do the same.
And yet, this existed in a certain tension with other elements of the SWP’s politics, not least its anti-bureaucratism and stress on “socialism from below”, that is to say, the most attractive elements of its eclectic political cholent. John G has a stimulating take on this (emphases and comments are mine):
This conception had very broad implications for all areas of politics and practice (and I believe still does). One of them involved a revisionist theory of Leninism. We believed that talk of ‘the vanguard party’ had been distorted by the Stalinist tradition (beginning of course with the degeneration of the Comintern from a very early stage) into a species of substitutionalism. Here the vanguard was seen as an elite separated from the class, not that different from various kinds of underground nationalist organisations. Within a degenerated orthodox Trotskyism there were more scholastic and less militaristic forms of elitism. What they had in common was a reification of both ‘leadership’ and ‘theory’ as something that developed independently of the class struggle. In our tradition, by contrast, the vanguard was simply something that already existed in the working class [it doesn’t currently, but say on], and our argument was that this vanguard (which hopefully we were a part of) should organise itself: in other words actually existing militants and fighters and not a bunch of experts with some special esoteric theory. We incessantly asked ‘who teaches the teacher?’ to such pretenders. [A very useful riposte to NUT reps.]
Implicit in the theory, you see, is a criticism of a methodology that’s long plagued the left, probably going back to the Second International, which prioritises investment in the apparatus as soon as you have a few quid to spare. We saw it in the early Comintern, where Moscow gold meant the German party suddenly found itself possessing dozens of daily papers and having no clear idea of what to do with them.
Nor was the Trotskyist movement immune. In the 1980s, the Militant tendency famously had more fulltime workers than the actual Labour Party it was supposed to be an entrist faction in; around 200 people all told. The absurd example is provided by Jack Barnes’ SWP (US) when the money from the Trotsky copyrights made the party flush; at one point more than one in five party members was on the payroll, and George Novack boasted of having an infrastructure that could serve a party of 100,000 members. Obviously, the spectacular growth that may have justified this investment in infrastructure didn’t happen (instead the party began to shrink markedly), but the enormous party bureaucracy, far beyond what could have been sustained by members’ subs, did provide a material base for Jack to do with the party very much what he wanted to.
And so it was with the IS/SWP, though in this case Cliff’s Building the Party can’t be blamed – the book is often self-serving, especially with its fetish of “stick-bending” and Lenin’s alleged instinct for the correct turn (this is why Cliff’s Lenin bears an uncannily close resemblance to Cliff) – but you will not find there any attempt to theoretically justify an elitist party bureaucracy. Chris Harman’s essay “Party and Class” has its difficulties, and a more developed elitist concept can be detected in John Rees’ work on Lukács, but generally the bureaucracy wasn’t theorised at all. It was just a matter of the party’s established practices – which were more enshrined by custom than actually thought about – being dignified with appellations like “Leninism” or “democratic centralism”.
Be that as it may, the specific weight of the bureaucracy in the organisation has increased quite a bit over the years. A clue to this may be found in the IS tradition’s analysis of substitutionism, which acknowledges that substitutionism is an inherent danger, but it becomes a particularly acute one at times when the class struggle is at a low ebb. Here, for instance, is Alex Callinicos on “The Rank-and-File Movement Today” (1982):
Certainly there has been a tendency for the rank-and-file groups to become substitutes for an orientation on rank-and-file activity. This tendency has been encouraged by some formulations used to characterize the groups. For example, Steve Jefferys, the chief architect of the second attempt to build the NRFM, attacked the notion of Teachers Rank and File as ‘a caucus’ as ‘very narrow’: ‘We want all who are ready to fight consistently over a wide range of issues to join us in Rank and File’. He then went on to describe the group as both ‘the organisation of the SWP members in a particular union or industry’ and ‘made up of all consistent fighters among the rank-and-file’. This sort of confused reasoning, which treated an ‘organisation of SWP members’ as ‘all consistent fighters among the rank-and-file’ could only encourage the groups to substitute themselves for the rank-and-file. Whereas in 1977 this sort of approach led the SWP dangerously close to ultra-leftism, in the very grim climate of more recent years it has promoted an accommodation by the groups to the trade-union bureaucracy.
Would that Alex had remembered what he used to know…
But actually, this brings us closer to the crux of the biscuit. That is the climate that set into the party in the Downturn period of the 1980s when, as Pat Stack used to say, “We all went a bit mad.” The political aspect of this was Cliff’s view that the swamp was rising all around us so we had to fortify our little ideological island. But there were organisational consequences too, not so well noticed. Shawn has a terrific post which I’ll quote extensively about what happens to bureaucracies in periods of ebb, beginning with how unions evolve in downturn situations:
Downturns in struggle have many effects on the working class. One of them is to increase bureaucracy within the working class movement. Unions, which had strong rank and file networks in the 1960s and 1970s were weakened, in the USA this led to a secular decline in union density to single digits today in the private sector. Workers retreated from activity but the unions still needed to function and represent the members’ interests. The full-time apparatus took up that role (rather than, say, wildcat strikes led by shop stewards and other rank and file leaderships). You can see how after a while the full-time apparatus starts to be identified with the union because they carry much more of the union’s functions and day to day operation. They are the union and the members are there to support the active element – the full-time official.
And this is not just an issue of the general secretary on a six-figure salary developing elitist conceptions:
Many union staff are just working class shmos like the rest of us, have living standards not much higher in many cases (if at all) then the workers they represent and live in working class communities. Much of the time they may be more progressive than the members, and their day to day struggle to hold together union organization gives them a not unreasonable sense of ownership over the union – just as we feel in our workplaces. You can understand why they might not like to be summarily shoved aside by some impetuous group of workers who doesn’t know how things work, doesn’t know labour laws or the rules of mediation or even their own collective agreement. What’s more, in most unions, the full-time staff are not accountable directly to the members. They are hired and fired by management staff who answer directly to the union leadership – and almost all the pressure on them comes from this direction. They become used to deferring upwards, not downwards to their membership.
And as with the unions, a fortiori with a smallish revolutionary group that is of a sufficient size to have a fulltime apparat, but not big or socially rooted enough to have a large popular base that it needs to be responsive to. Bear in mind also that in the absence of large struggles, most of the party’s activity – branch meetings, paper sales, recruitment rallies – is not only propagandistic but, more to the point, self-generated. At this point the fulltime apparat becomes more than just a useful resource, it becomes a life support machine for a demoralised party, keeping things ticking over until the upturn arrives. And so the apparat comes to substitute itself for the party…
It’s important to realise that this wasn’t intentional – as ever with the SWP, if Cliff had intended things to develop this way, the implementation wouldn’t have been nearly so effective. We’re talking about an institutional process here, that can only really be seen clearly in retrospect. But this is where we can see the exaggerated weight of the party bureaucracy; the increasing cult of the professional leadership; and the deference towards the apparat that is most marked among the 1980s generation, which forms the backbone of the current CC faction.
And what happens when the upturn in class struggle doesn’t emerge? The situation in the 1990s and beyond, despite such invigorating buzzwords as “the political upturn in the industrial downturn” and “Weimar in slow motion”, has been notable by the fact that traditional class struggle has been extremely low, and not only have many traditional working-class jobs gone, but union density has massively declined outside of a handful of areas (mostly in white-collar public sector jobs, which carries its own challenges for the labour movement). The Communist Party is gone, the Labour left has suffered a generational collapse and the radical left (which was always more dependent on the Labour/CP left than it would have liked to admit) has also declined in a very serious way. The landscape described by Hallas in 1971 simply does not exist any more.
What we do find when we look at the 1990s is Cliff realising the party had to break out of its rut, largely by relating to single-issue movements (anti-war, anti-fascism, the Criminal Justice Bill etc) and that some stick-bending was in order. And this seemed to be working as the party grew quite rapidly, though largely this was a function of being the last group standing on the radical left. But what we find here is a forcing of the pace, a bureaucratic solution to the party’s conservatism. Here’s Shawn again:
Cliff understood that the 80s had made the party conservative and that it needed to be shaken up. But the effects of conservatism were not experienced solely by the membership and were, arguably, felt more acutely by the party machine. That distortion explains why the cure for conservatism was directed solely at the membership. [That old canard about the “conservative block” again.] It was they who were the problem. The Party by now was the machine, what was needed was a better membership. Of course, we now see precisely what that means. And there’s no use pretending that this was a process that was resisted all along the line by the membership. [In fact, many were quite happy with it if the machine was getting bums on seats.] Certainly there were individuals who were unlucky enough to attract the tender mercies of the full-timers and the CC. I remember John Rees gleefully telling us how he had expelled some workers who were contemptuous of him. But the majority of old time cadre were committed to the IS tradition and to the party. They internalized this degeneration and outlook, having long since lost any memory of a different kind of organization in a different kind of context. It’s a bit like the Stockholm Syndrome or the way in which the oppressed internalize their own oppression.
So you find these organisational twists and turns running right through the period. Abolishing branch committees, then restoring them, then abolishing them again. Splitting large city-centre branches into tiny neighbourhood branches, which supposedly would be the basis for rapid new growth. Bambery’s cunning plan during the anti-war movement to disband the branches altogether. Pushing for rank-and-file papers in certain unions, then abandoning them. All sorts of political lurches to go with the organisational disorientation. And this all serving to increase the membership’s reliance on the revolutionary bureaucracy. This is not healthy for a party supposedly based on the premise of “socialism from below”.
But another pertinent question is: what sort of machine have the comrades got for their money?
Depending on whose membership estimates you believe, somewhere between 3% and 5% of the SWP’s membership is on the party payroll. The party of “socialism from below” has, in practice, developed an organisational structure that even the late Russ Meyer might have found ridiculously top-heavy. Moreover, the task of nurturing the members’ freewheeling rebellious spirit has not been made easier by the apparatchiks’ tendency to see themselves as an officer caste within the party.
There are distinct subsets of these, but perhaps it is worth starting with how they are selected. This is very much a who-you-know world. Contrary to popular myth, screwing a CC member isn’t the only, or even the main, way into the apparat. Being related to a CC member also helps, as does drinking in the same pub as a CC member. Back when Cliff was alive, he used to headhunt promising people from the districts, which wasn’t always successful – Cliff was often an appalling judge of character – but did at least introduce an element of randomness. Since Cliff’s passing, the randomness has largely gone, and the apparat has reproduced itself, creating new apparatchiks in its own image.
The majority of members will have encountered the apparat in the form of their district organiser. These people very often function like feudal barons – indeed, Bambery specifically viewed them as enforcers for the CC in the districts – and, by virtue of their appointment by the leadership, are assumed to speaking with the Voice of God. A good organiser – one who’s sensitive and modest and honest – can be a genuine asset. More often, you’ll get one who bullies the branch comrades while bullshitting the CC about the tremendous successes in his district. If you get one of the latter type, it’s preferable to have a lazy sod who spends his days sitting around in his underwear watching cartoons. An energetic organiser without much real work to do can cause havoc by spending his time hatching grandiose schemes to impress the CC, conspiring against “problem members” (those whom the organiser has taken a dislike to for whatever reason) and generally swaggering about like a pound shop Lenin. The only countervailing force is the branch cadre, but branches are often so clique-ridden as to make this worse than useless.
More important, though, is that strange institution called “The Centre”, which will be little known to comrades outside London, and isn’t all that transparent to those inside it. The Centre is reminiscent of nothing so much as that sequence in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix where Asterix and Obelix have to enter the Madhouse of Bureaucracy. The literally dozens of comrades working in the Centre, some of whom have been there for decades and made a career path out of it, do jobs which, to a very large extent, should be the responsibility of lay members. In a parody of socialist planning, the Centre seems to work on the theory that there’s no job a lay member can do that can’t be done better by a fulltimer, or better still, three fulltimers.
The benefit the members actually derive from this overstaffing isn’t always apparent. It helps to have someone to coordinate, say, an intervention into a UCU strike, though that presupposes that (a) you will be able to get the Industrial Department on the phone, (b) the Industrial Department will know what’s required and (c) the Centre will supply you promptly with the high-quality assistance you need. A cynic might assume that the useful functions of the bureaucracy are providing a payroll vote for the CC and encouraging the members to be dependent on direction from above, rather than self-organising their activity. But that would be a cynic talking.
A cynic might also recall that great triumph of political spin, Mussolini’s claim to have made the trains run on time, when a moment’s thought would tell you that nobody has ever succeeded in making Italian trains run on time. A passing thought: one of the more appealing sides of Cliff’s Building the Party is his keenness to debunk Stalinist myth-making about the immaculate party by detailing just how shambolic the Bolshevik organisation was for much of the time. Though the full story has yet to be written, Cliff’s own organisation is far from immune on that score.
The Central Committee itself forms a not inconsiderable subset of the apparat. For a long time, the only non-fulltimer on that august body was Lord Acton; recent attempts to broaden the leadership’s base have taken the non-payroll component to a whopping three out of fourteen. As has often been documented, the slate system of election and the ban on factions for nine months of the year (in practice longer) means that the CC becomes self-perpetuating. As John (East Devon, Somerset & Dorset) points out in the pre-special conference IB:
Our current method of electing the CC has much in common with the bureaucratic rituals of “dead-man’s shoes” and “Buggins’ turn”.
When an existing CC member dies, resigns or is deemed inappropriate for some reason [which is almost never explained to conference delegates], the remaining members of the CC will choose a replacement. That replacement will generally live in London, be an ex-student and be an employee of the party.
Most importantly from the CC’s point of view, the person selected will be someone who agrees with their own current perspectives. What we end up with is a CC with limited experience of the world outside of the hothouse of National Office or student politics. In normal circumstances that CC will then carry on relatively unchanged until the next person dies, resigns or is deemed inappropriate.
Lenin was always adamant that leaders are only there because they have earned that right in the struggle and they have to continually re-earn that right. What we need is a leadership with experience of real struggles in the real world and a method of nomination and election that achieves it.
Quite so, and, without wanting to over-personalise this, the human factor counts as well. Past leaderships had obvious talent that made up for the structural weaknesses; but those people have largely fallen by the wayside. It’s true that Cliff, Hallas, Harman, Paul Foot and Julie Waterson have died, and there’s nothing we can do about that; Dave Hayes seemed to vanish off the face of the earth; and while I have reservations about Chris Bambery, Lindsey German and John Rees, who between them were implicated in some really appalling hackery over the years, they were relatively substantial individuals. I’m not sure the same can be said of the current CC, except for Alex, who has been there since 1977 and should probably have been put on gardening leave some time ago.
Another side is the enormous arrogance displayed by many (not all) apparatchiks towards the membership they are theoretically there to serve. It’s not always clear what the officer caste has done to deserve its privileges, but it certainly feels they are deserved. Some examples are trivial: the current editor of Socialist Worker has a conversational style that, even in small informal groups, recalls Gerry Healy’s immortal quip “How dare you speak while I’m interrupting”; at Marxism one finds talks being done by people miles out of their depth, because plum speaking assignments are handed out as rewards rather than on the basis of expertise. Some can be actually damaging: an organiser screwing up a campaign or strike on the assumption that she knows the correct tactics better than the people involved in running it; valuable cadres being done over because some fulltimer feels they haven’t been deferential enough.
And this is without going into the differential punishments handed out by the disciplinary system… we know about that already.
The question that has to be asked is – this revolutionary bureaucracy carries significant overheads in comparison to the benefits it brings, but is it really necessary? Couldn’t most of the work be done by lay members, as in the smaller and poorer groups in the international tendency? Perhaps there’s a clue here to the apparat’s Luddite attitude to the digital revolution.
Cliff, in his more lyrical moments, used to envision SW as a paper with thousands of correspondents – the lay members and supporters of the party. Purely in terms of producing propaganda, web publishing and social media are far outstripping the century-old model of a printed newspaper to give us the party line. Lenin’s Tomb has a significantly larger readership than Socialist Worker, and beyond that, such new-fangled devices as “e-mail” and “comments boxes” allow a two-way discussion that the old-school letters page lacked – and it is instantaneous. Moreover, one may wonder why, in the days of electronic communication, it is necessary to have a Central Committee who all live within a few miles of each other in Hackney.
In conclusion, and at the risk of being a tad cyber-utopian, there’s a fascinating passage in the recent book The End of Politics by the thoughtful Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Carswell tells us that he used to spend a lot of his time helping constituents with schools admission appeals. This doesn’t happen any more, because mums are getting in touch online and comparing notes as to how to prepare their appeals. One doesn’t have to buy into Carswell’s Hayekian worldview to see the implications of this; nor to realise that the digital revolution has helped to render obsolete a system of organising that may have seemed like simple common sense in 1975. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the Dark Side of the Force.
 As we know, this was carried over into the party-state structure of the People’s Democracies when the Communist Parties took power; so in the GDR, some 10% of the population worked for the Stasi, which may have satisfied Erich Mielke’s OCD, but also seems to function as a punchline to one of Ludwig von Mises’ jokes about socialist inefficiency.
 There is much more that could be said about the degeneration of the US SWP, which in the 1970s was a fairly impressive organisation of a couple of thousand well-trained Trotskyists, and nowadays is a real estate company with around 30 members that occasionally does a bit of über-Stalinist propaganda. Suffice to say that it’s a cautionary tale well worth studying.
 Though, strictly speaking, the SWP’s regime isn’t democratic centralism. It’s centralism.
 It may also be relevant that this generation entered politics at a time when the Communist Party was moribund and the Cold War reaching its conclusion. Therefore this generation has never had to think seriously about Stalinism; although we shouldn’t overstate this, as nor have the succeeding generations.
 Not a very well remunerated career path, true, but as Tim Wohlforth once remarked, for the truly political person, being a fulltime activist is itself a great privilege.
 The ISO in the States is of a similar size to the SWP, but has many fewer fulltimers. It’s also got a significantly healthier culture, which may be related to the relative lack of bureaucracy.
 To guard against this tendency, comrades should read The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov.