Monthly Archives: March 2013

The bureaucratic imperative

SWP national secretary Charles Ponzi

SWP national secretary Charles Ponzi

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.[1]

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.[2]

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”.[3]

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.[4]

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?

Sunshine Desserts

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[5], do jobs which, to a very large extent, should be the responsibility of lay members.[6] 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[7], 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Though, strictly speaking, the SWP’s regime isn’t democratic centralism. It’s centralism.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] To guard against this tendency, comrades should read The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov.


Filed under Left Politics

From the vaults: “Democracy in the International Socialists”, 1975

An old document from the IS Internal Bulletin, republished here for its historical interest, but also because it has some current relevance.

That full internal democracy is an absolute practical necessity for the effective functioning of IS is agreed, at least in theory, by everyone in the group. Without democracy the leadership cannot produce correct policies, or speedily rectify false ones, and without democracy the membership cannot develop politic ally. All this is ABC and is included in every statement IS has made on the nature of the revolutionary party.

And yet, despite this general agreement, democracy, or lack of it, has for some time been a nagging and unresolved problem in IS. Many members have come to resent, albeit often with resignation, what seems to be the high-handed and undemocratic way in which certain important decisions are taken. As our intervention in the class struggle becomes more serious, and as problems of security necessitate an increase in the element of trust in internal affairs, this is a state of affairs we can less and less afford. It is a recipe for disunity, bitterness and splits. This article is an attempt to examine the causes of this situation and suggest a possible remedy.

There are two opposite but equally misconceived views on this problem which are commonly put forward in IS. One is that the group is ruled by a malevolent bureaucracy intent on disregarding the membership. The other is that the only people worried about democracy are petty bourgeois malcontents. To make any progress it is necessary to dispense with these stereotypes and recognise that IS does not possess anything that can meaningfully be calIed a bureaucracy, but that there is legitimate cause for concern about the relationship between the membership and the centre. What, then, is the root of the problem?

Organisational forms, the size and mode of election of leading committees etc, may have something to do with it (in this respect I support the move to a directly elected central committee). But the crucial factor I believe is the lack of an established tradition of organised political debate at all levels of the organiation. The branches discuss politics and debate issues, of course, but not in a way that systematically relates to the central strategic concerns of the group and so can con­ tribute to the taking of important decisions. They cannot do this because they are not sufficiently informed on the strategic plans of the leadership or, more importantly, on the reasoning behind differences within the leadership.

It is worthwhile digressing somewhat to consider how this state of affairs has arisen. In the late sixties IS was a very loose and almost ultra-democratic organisation. Because of this and because we had established ourselves as the dominant force on the revolutionary left, IS became the object of ‘entry work’ by small groups of sectarians who in no way shared our politics but who thought we offered fertile ground for their operations. The first of these groups, Workers Fight, was tolerated as virtually a separate organisation within IS for three years, during which time they contributed little except permanent disruption. When we finally did part company with them it was in the most democratic manner possible through the holding of a special conference on the issue. The second group was the Right Faction (some of whom later formed the Revolutionary Communist Group) operated secretly, refusing even to constitute themselves as an open faction. The Right Faction were finally expelled after they had been overwhelmingly defeated on every point at the 1973 conference. In the meantime, however, they had succeeded in filling numerous issues of the Internal bulletin with unbelievably obscure articles on Marxist economics and in wrecking several branches.

At a time when IS was trying hard to turn itself into a working class organisation these episodes constituted a serious diversion and waste of time but they also had other con­ sequences for the way in which we conducted our internal affairs. Because any sign of disagreement among the leadership was immediately pounced on by the permanent oppositionists in the hopes of producing a split, the leadership developed the habit of keeping their differ­ences to themselves. Then after the 1973 conference it was decided that we had wasted enough time on internal debate and that now was the time to go out and build. For a while this worked well but gradually problems accumulated, and unfortunately the leadership’s habit of keeping their differences within a restricted circle persisted. The result was that issues (most notably the dispute about Socialist Worker) would fester in and around Cottons Gardens and then burst over the heads of an unsuspecting membership.

For some time we have ‘had a situation in which the membership learns of differences in strategy and approach among the NC only through vague rumour and in which open debate takes place only after crucial decisions have been taken. Branches are presented with a fait accompli and can only protest impotently. How can this state of affairs be remedied without turning the organisation into an academic talking shop?

Basically, I believe it is necessary to develop a tradition of organised political debate, not about everything under the sun or about long settled questions, but the central question of strategy, tactics and organisation which face the group. The initiative for this must come from the top. Where important differences of approach exist or come into being on whatever leading bodies we decide to have they must be articulated and presented to the membership. In this way, branches, districts, aggregates, etc will be able to participate in the crucial debates concerning the future of IS and the final decision by the NC, EC or Conference will mark the conclusion of a democratic discussion rather than the starting point of a bitter wrangle.

The implementation of this policy requires the regular production of the Internal Bulletin. In the past the IB was run on a laissez faire basis and became a forum for grousers and ardent factionalists. More recently it has been a one-sided information sheet from the Centre.  In the future it must be neither. It must be seriously edited and directed so that it focuses on important issues, and debates them in a constructive way. Leading comrades who are dissidents on some question or who wish to propose a new departure must discipline themselves to articulate their views to the group as a whole. This imposes added burdens on our already overworked leading cadre but would bring considerable benefits to the overall functioning of the organisation and the feeling of uncertainty and ignorance that pervades most of the membership about what is going on at the Centre.

A resolution to this effect will I hope be discussed and passed at the coming Conference.

John Molyneux, Portsmouth IS, 1975


Filed under Left Politics

Order prevails in Vauxhall

Professor Callinicos is pleased at the conference's outcome

Professor Callinicos is pleased at the conference’s outcome

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

HL Mencken

And so it is that the rigged conference has taken place, the leadership has secured its victory (though it may well be a Pyrrhic victory) and the opposition has been crushed. Rage and despair will be the natural reactions; however, it’s a good time to pause a moment and take stock.

The leadership is morally bankrupt

Let’s be blunt. The most pressing issue facing the SWP is simply this – is it a safe place? On the face of things, no; on the face of things, the majority of delegates today don’t think that is at all important.

To recap, this starts off with the allegation of sexual harassment made against “Delta”, the then national secretary of the party, in 2010. Comrade W took her complaint to the Central Committee, the result of which was Delta having to accept a demotion. Although the SWP grapevine is quite efficient, this was all that most comrades knew – that Delta had had an affair which ended badly, and he had behaved inappropriately. At the time the talk wasn’t of rape; at the time, people outside the district didn’t know just how young Comrade W was – that this case involved someone who was effectively a schoolgirl. However, the very fact that Delta – basically the leader of the party at that point – was forced to take a demotion indicated that those people in the leadership who knew the details knew that things weren’t right. They knew Delta had misbehaved badly. They can hardly deny it now, though that won’t stop them trying.

And then there was the 2011 conference. Where Delta – demoted, but still on the CC – gave a cringeworthy ten-minute speech in his own justification, followed by a (highly orchestrated) standing ovation, complete with clapping and chanting. A lot of comrades didn’t like that. Equally, and even without knowing all the details, they didn’t like the hectoring of Comrade W’s supporters that took place that year. This is important background – things were bad before we knew this was a rape complaint.

Which brings us to the Disputes Committee. With the best will in the world, and even assuming that DC members could put aside any unconscious bias (not necessarily an assumption that outsiders would be willing to make), the DC is simply not competent to hold a quasi-criminal hearing into an allegation of rape. It doesn’t dispose of any forensic resources, isn’t composed of legal professionals… and, perhaps more importantly, can’t impose any sanctions beyond expulsion. The Chinese Communist Party can lock up Bo Xilai; the SWP Disputes Committee doesn’t have any such powers at its disposal, thankfully. If a woman comrade makes an allegation of rape, the DC should gently explain that they aren’t in a position to hold a rape investigation, and should encourage her to go to a rape crisis centre and/or the police. The DC, as something analogous to a professional ethics body, is only competent to rule on whether or not an individual is fit to be a member of the party, or at least to hold a leading role in it.

One further point: it isn’t a punishment to not be a member of the leadership. The party chooses who is an appropriate individual to represent it. This needs restating for the benefit of those comrades who seem to believe in a Divine Right of Delta.

Well, the DC made its decision, and this was accepted (just) by conference. Two things, though, are important. The first is that Comrade W, who had expressed a desire to speak to conference, not only was not allowed to do so, but was not even allowed to enter the hall and listen. This is a pretty appalling way to treat a vulnerable young woman who has already been bullied for making a complaint against a leader of the party. The second point is that the vote was incredibly close – roughly 51% yes to 45% no, with 4% indicating an abstention and many delegates simply sitting on their hands in shock.  The “majority” for accepting the DC report was actually one of less than two in five delegates. And this was in a context where no amendments or supplementary motions were accepted – delegates were simply allowed a straight up-and-down vote where they could either accept or reject the DC report in its entirety. Not very impressive.

And that’s before taking into account this weekend’s revelations about a further case involving a woman comrade who was beaten and raped by her district organiser. If anything, the news report understates how bad that case was. What is true is that the organiser, having been found guilty by the DC, was expelled for two years. Two years. That’s the same penalty that was handed out to the Facebook Four for an online discussion about how inadequately the party was handling the Delta case; a discussion where they decided not to form a faction and, in a Kafkaesque twist, were expelled for “factionalism”. Hell, Andy Wilson was expelled for life for proposing to set up a cultural magazine. What sort of organisation has such skewed priorities?

The obvious answer is, an organisation which feels that the ends justify the means absolutely; that in the cause of the socialist revolution (or at least maintaining the current leadership in their positions of power; the CC doesn’t distinguish the two) the only thing that matters is the preservation of authority. If Delta is a good organiser who is crucial to the perspective, he must be protected – nay, even restored to the CC as soon as they can get away with it. Most of the doubts about his behaviour – say, whether it is appropriate for the leader of the party to use his position to try it on with teenage girls – are ruled out of court as “bourgeois morality”. And the victims in all this are simply collateral damage.

It’s the logical end of a process of dehumanisation, of chewing people up and spitting them out. I once remonstrated – quite mildly in retrospect – with a senior CC member about the party’s habit of losing good people by way of the apparat’s casual use of bullying and slander to get their way. “You have to understand,” he explained, “it’s unfortunate, but some people just couldn’t carry the perspective.” I wish I’d had the nerve at the time to tell him what an utter [redacted] he was. But then, we didn’t know then what we know now.

The leadership is politically weak

This is the context for the rebellion in the ranks, and it’s been heartening to see so many comrades saying that this is something they can’t possibly defend. Indeed, the fact that the mishandling of the rape complaint is indefensible is itself demonstrated by the fact that the leadership and their proxies haven’t even tried to defend it. The most “substantial” justification from the CC is Professor Callinicos’ Socialist Review article, which merely refers, opaquely and in passing, to a “difficult disciplinary case”, before going on to discuss how the SWP’s Leninism is being threatened by reformist and movementist currents, the former represented by TV’s Owen Jones (here Alex reveals the little-known fact that young master Jones is a member of the Labour Party) and the latter by former SWP CC member “Donny Mayo”, who has since thrown in his lot with Counterfire and is therefore a proxy target for John Rees, the party’s current numero uno Emmanuel Goldstein figure. (Paul D’Amato has a good response here, perhaps a better one than the article deserves.)

None of this is particularly germane to the issue in hand – the party’s disastrous mishandling of the disciplinary case Alex wants to gloss over – but it has provided a useful script for the CC’s supporters. If you read through the monstrous pre-conference bulletin, the contributions of CC supporters are notable for completely avoiding the issue and banging on instead about Leninism!!!, and how the opposition have deviated from it. This is our 1903 moment, they declare, when the Bolsheviks have to split with the Mensheviks. Quite what the Delta case has to do with Leninism is anyone’s guess, but the obvious conclusion is that this is a way of dignifying a fairly insubstantial argument. There’s also the unintentionally hilarious argument that the opposition want to exchange the SWP’s tried-and-tested way of doing things for the model of Syriza, which of course is so much less successful than the SWP.

Indeed, there is a pronounced tone of brittle defensiveness all the way through the discussion. The same has been true in party meetings. The 1980s generation, the backbone of the CC’s support, have dusted off their polemics about building our ideological defences to keep us from sinking into the swamp. In particular, this means acting as if thirty-year-old arguments over Women’s Voice are the last word on feminism; the idea that if you don’t agree with Sharon Smith’s articles it’s at least worth engaging with them seems to have completely passed them by. Better to deploy the bell, book and candle.

But actually, most of this is really sub-political. It amounts to the CC yelling “Respect our authoritah!” and then deploying every trick in the book to win the vote.

It begins with CC members – Callinicos, Kimber, Bradley et al – touring the branches and lying through their teeth to the members. This, sad to say, is not unexpected. We’ve also seen Party Notes turned into a factional publication, without of course offering any sort of right of reply.

There has been the punishment of party workers – Hannah Dee, one of the few leading members to command genuine respect and affection from the rank and file, was unceremoniously dumped from the CC purely for disagreeing with how the rape allegation was handled, and then found that her employment with the party had been terminated. There have been reports of bullying at the centre; the student office either is not communicating with SWSS groups or has ceased to function altogether.[1]

We’ve seen, in the pre-conference discussion, CC supporters openly referring to the opposition as scabs and narks. As for Donny Gluckstein’s ramblings about MI5, it pains me to get Yiddish on his ass, but he’s a shonda to his father.

There’s been the practice of winner-takes-all delegate selection, where if the CC loyalists had a bare majority in a district, they scooped 100% of the delegates from that district. Particular Stakhanovite exertions were observed in Glasgow and Sheffield, and one hopes the CC appreciates the efforts of Dave “The Hatchet” Sherry and Mad Maxine Bowler. Dave and Maxine, incidentally, sit on the Disputes Committee, which is supposed to protect party members from the arbitrary use of power by leading comrades.

And then there was that little stunt at the faction caucus, when a posse of CC members and hangers-on appeared to demand entrance. It was, apparently, unheard of for a faction to have a closed meeting. Let’s leave aside the fact that at the January conference, the CC held a “supporters’ meeting” which excluded oppositionists, and even one member of the CC’s own election slate. Let’s leave aside the likelihood that they intended to disrupt the caucus. The shocking thing was the appearance of Chanie Rosenberg and Anna Gluckstein, the founder of the party’s nonagenarian widow and his daughter:


It’s hard to think of a tactic more apolitical than this. The only possible reason for bringing Chanie along was to dare the opposition to close the door on the Mother of the Party. One is inevitably driven to think of Stalin wheeling out the elderly Krupskaya to lend himself moral authority; and it does a tremendous disservice to the memory of Cliff, who really despised the whole idea of personality cults, let alone a cult of his family.

A leadership that deploys tactics like this is a leadership that has no confidence in its ability to win an actual argument. It is hard to disagree with Ian B’s assessment that:

I have the impression of a very weak leadership panicking but unable to break out of a purely defensive stance… The CC fought like cats at conference to retain the leadership, but do not seem to be offering any way forward.

Eppur si muove

If there’s been one thing that’s characterised the CC’s response over recent weeks, it’s been the reversion to technophobia. From Callinicos talking about the “dark side of the internet” – as if socialists who disagree with Alex Callinicos are on a moral level with 411 scammers – to the repeated insistence in pre-conference aggregates that “the blog” was the source of the party crisis. The latter is a clear case of shooting the messenger, and is more than a little reminiscent of Cardinal Law declaring a fatwa against the Boston Globe. It’s also rather funny in that the opposition have been very disciplined online in the pre-conference period, while CC loyalists have been extremely prolific (if not very convincing) in their online appearances.

It strikes me, again, that the SWP leadership don’t get the digital revolution at all. They still have a commandist model based on a not very accurate apprehension of what the Bolsheviks were doing a century ago, with an omniscient Central Committee and a paper that pronounces “the line”. On the contrary, the internet is corrosive of all hierarchies; it points the way towards a style of organising that is much less vertical and much more horizontal (and not in the Skegness rally sense); that we now live in a world where activists are both hyperconnected and can share information instantaneously. Above all, it means the party can’t keep its dirty little secrets to itself the way it used to.

The positive side of this – and the thing that drove the CC absolutely nuts – was that a very large element of the party membership (a) exercised its critical faculties and (b) self-organised. The comrades of the IDOOP faction didn’t wait for the CC to graciously grant them permission to organise; they did it. This is still a way of thinking that is alien to the SWP leadership, and probably has been since the late Pete Sedgwick departed.

It’s also true that the rape case – awful as that has been – has become a lightning rod for all sorts of other submerged issues. There are many people in the SWP who are sick of being lied to, being bullied, being treated as cannon fodder for the permanent leadership’s Ponzi schemes. The older ones remember when the party was better – hell, they remember that the IS of forty years ago was a good deal larger and more influential than the SWP of today. They also realise how toxic this situation is, and how it’s tarnishing Cliff’s legacy. The younger ones are of a generation that doesn’t accept authority without question.

What next? I certainly don’t have any quick and easy answers. If the good comrades aren’t to be lost to politics entirely, we will need to go through a long process of thinking, writing and discussing. What is clear, though, is that the SWP’s discredited leadership has no way forward. Even if it maintains control of the apparatus, its future will be that of Sheila Torrance’s rump WRP, which inherited enough assets from Healy to still have a sort of zombie existence nearly thirty years later. But Alex – remember your glory days, for you will never fly so high again.

You foolish lackeys, your order is built on sand…

[1] To be scrupulously fair, Mark Bergfeld’s resignation may have caused some disruption to the student office, and someone will have to be co-opted to the CC to take his place. Perhaps Martin Smith would be available.


Filed under Left Politics

After Sunday

The following IDOOP faction document, by Mike G and Megan T, has been circulated to all SWP members. It is being reproduced here as an excellent summation of the situation. Emphases are mine.

As we approach the Special Conference, it is important that we discuss where we go from here. The faction has been tremendously successful: 532 party members have joined – far from the fringe grouping that we are characterised as.

Our concern at the start of this process was that the ‘middle ground’ of worried members would drift out of the party or into passivity if there was not pressure on the CC to address their concerns. The existence of the faction, and the seriousness of its arguments, have kept many comrades in the party and given heart to many more that a significant section of the membership does not agree with the CC’s tactics and responses to the questions raised by the disputes committee report, and has been prepared to stand up and say so.

In our view, we must be very careful not to abandon all that we have gained in recent weeks in the name of party discipline. In some senses, the building of the faction has been a demonstration of how a living organisation should work. It has been a conversation among comrades, horizontally, which has opened new networks and connections and made it possible to argue and debate issues directly, without formulae and slogans, without ‘holding the line’ or defining ourselves in relation to the leadership. What has emerged is not just a deep discontent, but a generalised feeling of disenfranchisement among party members.

The CC is fighting for its life, and for the methods of resolving issues it has used, largely uncontested, for a very long time. It has battered, attacked and ultimately removed people without compunction. That retaliatory spirit is obvious in the treatment of student comrades since conference, in the motion sent to Tottenham branch and in Terry, Donny and Penny’s piece in the IB, which begins and ends with threats of expulsion. The withdrawal of the Tottenham motion, proposed by two leading CC supporters and dismissing the student comrades with a wave of the hand, is an old tactic – create the arguments, spread them wide, and then withdraw the motion but not the position that it reflected. So it has created a point of reference for all those with a leaning towards heresy hunting.

We have argued that the party leadership has used exclusively administrative and procedural justifications and methods to respond to the IDOOP faction. While protesting at the “misuse” of our constitution, every bureaucratic device has been mobilised to block the faction. The manoeuvring to get CC supporters elected to the special conference by whatever means possible has nothing to do with the winning of political arguments that is assumed when we discuss democratic centralism and the unity it can promote.

That unity based on conviction, shared understandings and debate between comrades is the only guarantee that our understandings and methods are appropriate for the times in which we live (the “this-sidedness of thinking” as Marx called it). That is what politics is, not the manipulation of party structures. Or have we abandoned the idea that the centre of our theory is agency, real people intervening to change the world in circumstances not of our own choosing – or to put it another way, to break out of the structures that imprison our thinking?

The standard issue CC introduction to every aggregate gives a general, broad picture of the world and then moves on to attack the faction for narrowing that grand vision to internal matters. But that sweeping and general overview is no substitute for the complex and searching analysis of the society in which we live which has been the greatest strength of the SWP tradition, and which has enabled us to “punch above our weight”. Those ideas have been carried and won by comrades well prepared with arguments that have given them the confidence to work as they have. That confidence is severely damaged when the leaders of our organisation cannot offer a political explanation for their own actions.

The reasons for that are very clear. They were wrong. That was the immediate cause of the current crisis, and the error was then compounded by the refusal to acknowledge it and to respond to widespread disquiet by attempting to close down discussion. Indeed, it is the CC’s response to its mistake that has exposed a deeper weakness and what many of us have seen as a shocking willingness to reach for bureaucratic solutions to a political problem.

In recent years the CC has split time and again. The problem is not the splits in themselves, but the fact that they were concealed from the members of the party until they burst on us like a sudden storm. The gulf between the leadership and the party began to widen, the party apparatus increasingly substituted itself in various forms of activity and successful leadership became increasingly replaced by instructions, commands and moralism, always veiled by a tone of urgency to justify the failure to discuss things with comrades. That process has impaired the relationship between the CC and the party as a whole and withered the democratic reciprocity between sections of the party; this has not only affected individual comrades and distorted the party; it has weakened the leadership.

The DC dispute was the final straw in that imbalanced, frustrating and unequal relationship. At some point the CC began to treat the party with suspicion and outright hostility. And we have seen in the last six weeks how deeply embedded that suspicion is. It is easy to demonise two comrades who are being made responsible for a generalised leak of our internal discussions. Nothing can really be concealed in the age of the internet, and we would do well to understand that. But the faction contains over 500 comrades from every area of the party – why is this never discussed?

There is an alternative to ill-tempered protests about bloggers. It is as if the problem was not the method that came to grief and failed to convince nearly half the party’s conference delegates but the fact that it was discovered! In the age of instant communication our internal conduct and our external actions have to coincide. If we talk about democracy we have to exemplify it.

Part of the role of the CC in a revolutionary organisation is to fight to win over the majority of the membership to ideological positions and the practical activity that flows from an analysis of the current political situation. If the CC is not willing, or able, to do this then it is not leading. It is not the role of revolutionaries to support a weak leadership no matter what, but rather the obligation of party members to conduct an internal argument if they believe that the positions or tactics of the organisation are not matching the potential of prevailing circumstances and resulting in growth – numerical growth, rising levels of theoretical understanding and practical confidence, and in influence beyond our ranks.

How did the insistence on building a revolutionary organisation in which knowledge and experience, theory and practice, met in a “vibrant collaboration” (Lenin’s words) between all its members become transformed into a frozen transmission of pre-digested ideas from the top to the bottom? That’s a process that all of our comrades, and all the people we work and struggle with, will immediately recognise as the way capitalism functions. And we are supposed to be its gravediggers.

The faction has already won its first battle, whatever the outcome of the heavily rigged conference on the 10th. It has burst open the formal and restricted arena of discussion, and created a space of vigorous, honest and horizontal debate about much more than just the DC decision. It has re-established the fundamental socialist principle of accountability by demanding an explanation from the CC. And when it refused to provide one, it began to analyse that response and to connect the specific to the general, the flawed way in which the DC was handled with the general sense among a large chunk of the membership that they had been disenfranchised.

In just a few weeks, the desire to analyse how we got to this point has resulted in many faction members, both longstanding and new cadre, starting the process of attempting to fill some theoretical gaps. This is fantastically encouraging, and a glimpse at how political pride can be rebuilt and how fruitful honest collective discussion is. The very fact of the conference is a victory, but if we accept that silence must follow, then we have not achieved what we set out to achieve.

The CC argues that we are ‘permanent factionalists’. On the contrary, we are fighting to restore political debate and discussion in a democratic atmosphere to the heart of the organisation, for the SWP to rediscover the traditions that won it so much respect beyond its own ranks – in other words, to dissolve back into a party that has reaffirmed its openness to the debate and comradely argument that will make every comrade a leader, and acknowledge what every one of us contributes to our theory.

That means that while the faction will cease to exist – and on that we’re all agreed – the debate can and must continue, in the branches, the colleges, the day schools, the coffee shop discussions, the conversations after a sale or a demonstration; and it needs to continue in all our publications and meetings. There must be no separation between the theorists and the activists and, while we accept party discipline, we can’t accept the reimposition of control under threat of expulsion or sanctions or exclusion from this conference or that party event.

There should be no reprisals of any kind after conference, and a clear instruction from the CC to all their supporters that this is a condition for the party to heal its divisions. Branches and districts must continue to allow free and frank debate while we are united in our activity. That is the political duty of the leadership, and it needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

We want to win back an open democratic party culture that others can look on from the outside and admire, together with a unity of purpose that is sustained by that culture. The comrades who have argued that all this discussion inhibits activity are contradicting themselves. Socialists are active out of conviction, not out of loyalty to structures, procedures, or to this or that leadership. Our loyalty is to a political tradition and to the revolutionary project – the tradition that has kept that flame alive.

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Filed under Left Politics

Building the leadership

“It is like a car. You pull the gear lever and it does not start.”

Tony Cliff

Let’s begin by talking about reification. I know Cliff, back in the day, liked to talk about “substitutionism”, but it’s worth casting the net a little wider; after all, if we confine the discussion to substitutionism, we open the door to the conceit that there’s some ideological vaccine that will prevent us falling into the trap. No, there isn’t; we can only be aware of the danger and guard against the temptation as best we can.

Actually, the virus of reification can be most virulent amongst the practical people. You know the sort of people I mean. They’re the sort of people who tell you to get off the internet – that ephemeral trend that only students are interested in – and engage with the “real world”. That this injunction can be made with a straight face by full-time apparatchiks who haven’t been involved with the real world for years tells you something interesting about reification.

Let’s begin with a practical person, someone with a strong activist bent. Someone who’s concerned with outcomes and regards processes as unimportant. Your practical person doesn’t understand why we need to spend a couple of weeks discussing what to do about, let’s say, a library closure, when it’s much easier to just organise a demo that the meeting would probably have decided to do anyway. This is the sort of thought process that drives your allies in the campaign absolutely up the walls.

Good old Lev Davidovich had a few things to say about this tendency in Our Political Tasks, way back in 1904:

Comrade Lenin in his “plan” suppresses “discussions” by virtue of an enviable logic: they do not correspond to the requirements of conspiracy and disturb the unity and harmony of the plan! So what are these “discussions” for? The results these discussions tend to reach can be reached by much less costly means: it is enough simply ‘that all participants in the work, all the circles, without exception, have the right to bring their decisions, their wishes, their questions, to the attention of both the local committee and the Central Organ and Central Committee. Such a procedure will make it possible to consult all members sufficiently, without having to create such cumbersome and non-conspiratorial institutions and the “discussions”.’ (Letter) How suspiciously Lenin then alludes to the “dilettante” committees, to the workers’ and students’ circles, composed of “non-specialised” members, who waste their time in “interminable discussions about everything” instead of working over “professional experience.” To think and deliberate “about everything” should be the prerogative of the “Centre”; and the circles, groups and isolated agents must think and deliberate according to their estate, workshop by workshop. The Party’s consciousness is centralised – there is nothing left for it but to make the individual experience of the individual member the patrimony of the Centre (‘to bring to the knowledge of the Centre’); that will be enough to enrich the practice of all individual members who will steep themselves in the consciousness of the Centre – which is conscious by profession.

You may well recognise the pattern of behaviour described by Trotsky here. It hasn’t grown much less aggravating in the intervening century and a bit. This, of course, is the pamphlet containing the famous warning about substitutionism:

For good or ill (more for ill), we are leading the masses to revolution, awakening in them the most elementary political instincts. But in so far as we have to deal with a more complex task – transforming these “instincts” into conscious aspirations of a working class which is determining itself politically – we tend to resort to the short-cuts and over-simplifications of “thinking-for-others” and “substitutionism.”

In the internal politics of the Party these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee; on the other hand, this leads the committees to supply an “orientation” – and to change it – while “the people keep silent”…

Quite so. So why talk about reification? Cliff in his treatment of Trotsky treats substitutionism – exemplified in Russia by the Narodnik terrorist tradition – as a temptation to which revolutionaries succumb when the level of struggle is low and the revolutionary movement is small and isolated. Actually, this is only indicative and not an iron law – certainly it wouldn’t explain the March Action in 1921.

Reification, if you like, is turning things on their heads, of understanding the leadership question from the bottom up rather than the top down. There’s plenty that can be said about the thought processes that go on at the top – it’s well worth reading Andy Wilson on this – but we don’t often consider the psychology of the leadership loyalist.

Many years ago, your author used to have a running argument with a leading member of the SWP, who accused me of lacking loyalty to the party. My counter-argument was that “loyalty to the party” (what in Russian we would call partiinost’) was a Stalinist concept – the correct subjects being the working class and socialism, and the party being a means to an end. In fact, the party could become an obstacle, and then another means would have to be sought, just as Trotsky concluded that the Comintern was irreformable. Don’t get me wrong, loyalty is a thoroughly good human trait, but blind loyalty, the loyalty that simply says “my party right or wrong” is, well, blind.

So it’s not merely a question of the party substituting for the class and the apparatus for the party etc – those are real phenomena, but we need to ask why the members let it happen. And there are powerful subcultural influences at work here – there’s the arrogance one gains on joining a Marxist group, or for the older cadre the emotional investment and ties of comradeship one has built up of years, even decades, in the party. In smallish, highly counter-cultural groups struggling through hard times, those influences are all the more intense.

And thus it is that, since the party is the memory of the class (sometimes I think the organised amnesia of the class is more like it) and the great repository of theory and programme, that the party can be assumed to see the interests of the class better than the class itself.[1] So we identify the interests of the party with the interests of the class; and, if we trust our leadership unquestioningly, we identify the interests of the party apparatus with those of the class. All the more so if we are in a strongly hierarchical group which makes great play of an “interventionist leadership” that’s constantly bending sticks.

This can be extremely dangerous, and it’s a process that has aided many shysters from Joe Stalin to Gerry Healy to Jack Barnes. Because, in unscrupulous hands, the ethic of partiinost’ allows comrades to be guilt-tripped into believing that expressing criticism of the leadership is a betrayal of the party, a capitulation to Menshevism, etc. One sees a lot of this in the recent discussion and, without wanting to get personal, someone who has written a book about Bukharin should know a thing or two about the rise of Stalinism. Notably, that Stalinism originated precisely as a degeneration within our own movement.

Well, these dangers are inherent. And there’s no cure for them except to have an ingrained suspicion of established leaderships – not necessarily to distrust the individuals, but to be aware of the traps that even the best leadership can walk into. Here is Rosa Luxemburg on the leadership question:

It is a mistake to believe that it is possible to substitute “provisionally” the absolute power of a Central Committee (acting somehow by “tacit delegation”) for the yet unrealizable rule of the majority of conscious workers in the party, and in this way replace the open control of the working masses over the party organs with the reverse control by the Central Committee over the revolutionary proletariat…

The unconscious comes before the conscious. The logic of the historic process comes before the subjective logic of the human beings who participate in the historic process. The tendency is for the directing organs of the socialist party to play a conservative role. Experience shows that every time the labour movement wins new terrain those organs work it to the utmost. They transform it at the same time into a kind of bastion, which holds up advance on a wider scale.


And again yes! While admitting that Luxemburg was not a libertarian[2], she had enough experience of the bureaucratic regime in the SPD to know what she was talking about. This doesn’t map across directly to qualitatively smaller and poorer revolutionary groups, but any bureaucracy, no matter how small, tends to confirm Lord Acton’s good joke about power.


One more point from Luxemburg that really shouldn’t need saying:

More important is the fundamental falseness of the idea underlying the plan of unqualified centralism – the idea that the road to opportunism can be barred by means of clauses in the party constitution… A manual of regulations may master the life of a small sect or a private circle. An historic current, however, will pass through the mesh of the most subtly worded paragraph.

A smart leadership – that is, a modest, open and non-defensive leadership – can counteract this to some extent. A leadership marked by grandiosity, authoritarianism and a defensive brittleness on programme and even day-to-day tactics – not so much.

A couple of points need to be made about Cliff. A perennial question that would come up in argument was whether (and this was often speculation about what would happen after the revolution) the SWP could degenerate into something analogous to Stalinism. Cliff always stressed that of course it bloody could! If the party of Lenin and Trotsky, with all the dedicated and experienced revolutionaries who made up the Bolshevik ranks, could degenerate into the Stalin regime, we’d have to be bloody arrogant to think we were immune.

The other point is to remember one of the paradoxes of Cliff’s style. He was, let us say, forceful in argument and sometimes unscrupulous when it came to getting his own way. But he also welcomed people standing up and disagreeing with him. He revelled in having a proper argument. This, of course, worked best when there were others in the leadership (think of Kidron, or Nigel Harris, or Duncan Hallas) who did disagree with him and were prepared to say so. The benefits were less apparent in his later years, when there were fewer independent thinkers left standing and more sycophants. A deferential culture was much less capable of correcting the leadership’s excesses.

One also recalls Harman, not long before he died, lamenting that he’d written an intentionally provocative article on the economy and nobody argued with it. Well, yes, Chris.

Ideally, your party democracy should be raucous and freewheeling and characterised by a high degree of spontaneity. The questions of the day should be thrashed out openly and vigorously, the better to achieve clarity and correct mistakes. You need a membership that can check the leadership, and a leadership that can rise up from the ranks under its own steam. At one time, IS politics was very much about that sort of thing.

But a bunkered leadership that’s isolated from the members, never mind the class, and responds to real political problems with administrative sanctions? A self-perpetuating clique that sustains itself through cronyism and nepotism, and treats the members with contempt? Perhaps half of the membership being prepared to allow these jumped-up panjandrums to treat them with contempt, because they’ve internalised the idea that the cause of socialism is coterminous with defending every last manoeuvre of the apparatus? You build a party like that, I’ll tell you straight, you’ll never achieve anything.

Rosa Luxemburg again:

The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn the dialectic of history.

Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.

And Duncan Hallas:

Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.

You said it, Duncan.

[1] This could lead us onto an interesting discussion of false consciousness, a concept that’s had some pretty pernicious effects over the years.

[2] It’s arguable that the regime Luxemburg and Jogiches ran in the Polish Social Democracy was more stringent than that of the Bolsheviks. It may not be coincidental that Feliks Dzierżyński got his political training in the SDKPiL.


Filed under Left Politics

Lord Acton and the guillotine: our Tendency after Cliff

A guest post from ‘Comrade Sigma’



The big failure: A party in decline

The battle for Cliff’s heritage is raging. The result is the destruction of his life’s work.

Throughout the 80s, the CC stubbornly claimed that the SWP had 4,000 members. In the nineties the numbers floating around rose to 6,000, later to nearly 8,000 and on very enthusiastic summer days reached close to 10,000 members. Today the SWP is down to 2,400 sub-paying members. Active membership is surely below 30%.

Whatever the credibility of any of the aforementioned numbers, we have arrived at the lowest number of party members in three or even four decades: the SWP is in decline! (1)

Now. Contrast these sobering realities with all those “historic opportunities” in conference papers and strategic documents. Contrast these declining numbers with the global crisis of capitalism, the ideological meltdown of neoliberalism, the longing for new perspectives throughout society. Contrast it with the tireless activism of the remaining and newly recruited members, the boundless self-sacrifice of a shrinking, but devotedly fighting active membership!

No doubt: the level of class struggle still is rather low and the strategic context remains complex. But while these objective factors do prevent a mass breakthrough in recruitment, they hardly explain the continuous decline. Should not a party that somehow found ways to organize modest, but real and continuous growth in the “downturn” eighties, find ways to at least not shrink under our present conditions?(2)

Accountability, Cliff-Style

Comrades who knew Tony Cliff in a position of leadership, will remember what this meant, and it was not easy. Cliff’s method of leadership was “hands-on”. Accountability was something he not only expected, but ensured and enforced. Whether you organized a demonstration, a national recruitment drive or an event like Marxism, Cliff would demand to know what numbers you expected. If your results missed that mark there would be a lot of questions asked to find out what went wrong.

Normally, Cliff remained encouraging. But make no mistake: having Cliff question you after a big failure was hardy a relaxing experience. Filing false excuses not only was futile, but a big, big mistake, because an angry Cliff was not something you would like to have on the phone.

Cliff in alarm mode, finally, was quite a show. Whenever he sensed something going very wrong, he would go berserk on all available channels until the reason for failure was corrected, or, often enough, the comrade in charge replaced.

The frequently asked question “What would Cliff say / think / do?”, by the way, has a very easy starting point. Each and every comrade who knew Cliff, even from afar, will agree that for him, the health, growth and strength of the organisation was at the heart of revolutionary politics – and it was his unforgiving measure to judge any leadership’s achievements.

The fish rots from the head

All this was the flipside of the radical centralism Cliff believed in: if you were the one in charge, you were the one to blame. If you occupied a position of centralized power, you had to live up to the pressures of centralized responsibility.

To commit errors was forgivable, of course. Cliff would consistently encourage you to be daring, to act, to be fearless and bold. If he then felt that you had tried and given everything, but still you had failed, he would simply say: “That’s alright!”, laugh it off and move on to the next project. For what he sought to create, was active leadership. He preferred a leadership actively committing errors to all variations of passivity and drifting, which he saw as the cardinal error in revolutionary politics.

Still: whenever something seriously went wrong, whenever the party was drifting or going down a dangerous path … it was automatically and without exception the leadership that had to question itself, its perspectives and its actions. Shifting the blame downwards, to your members, was an absolute No-Go. “You are the leadership. You take the blame.”

A decade of decline? A shrinking membership in times of increasing struggle? Cliff would be furious! His sense of alarm boundless! Cliff would be mad as hell and his anger and rage would rattle the party. And his full wrath would be directed to the people in charge: to the CC and the top echelon of the party! Certainly not to a bunch of blogging youngsters or abstract excuses like “a lack of discipline”.

Lacking discipline?!

A lack of authority, leadership!

“The fish rots from the head”, Cliff would scream.

The late Cliff: a difficult heritage

But, Clixton: it isn’t so easy. Measured by your own standards, it must be said that you, too, carry quite some responsibility for the decade of crisis following your final journey.

Repeating it through the nineties, Cliff coined the phrase: “Weimar in slow motion” (3) to characterize the state of the world capitalist system, adding, that the slow crisis had to spin out of control, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was that there would be deep crisis, sooner or later. The feeling he conveyed was clearly that this escalation was to happen rather soon.

When the so-called “tiger crisis” terminated the long boom in East Asia, the subsequent revolution in Indonesia against Suharto in 1997 electrified the Tendency. Even more so, as we were in comradely contact with a group of revolutionary youngsters over there. Tony Cliff was a living legend for them. To have him on the phone in person drove them crazy with excitement. We had a real chance of recruiting them to IST.

When he and I were discussing the situation in Indonesia, he shouted out: “If there will be just one workers state today, it will spread around the world, like wildfire. Like wildfire! Like wildfire!!”

This, to be sure, was not an isolated outbreak of enthusiasm on Cliff’s behalf. His predictions became increasingly dramatic as he approached the black door. So, when Cliff and I spoke at a rally shortly before Tony Blair’s election, he declared his conviction that there would be “no honeymoon at all” for Blair – but “a race between the SWP and the BNP”, starting the very day after election night, to win over the myriads of rapidly frustrated Labour voters.

Nor was Cliff alone with such high-flying expectations. American comrade Joel Geier saw the tiger crisis as the start of an imminent meltdown of world historic proportions. Alex Callinicos repeated the metaphor “Weimar” or “the 1930s” in “slow motion” more than once in spoken and written form.

Seattle and the fire next time

After the “downturn” of the 1980s and a “period of transition” in the 1990s, a “new upturn” was the logical next stage. This was the general expectation within our ranks at the turn of the millennium.

As we know today: the revolution in Indonesia stopped right where it was. Despite several most important outbreaks of anger and some massive mobilisations, Tony Blair did not meet resistance on the scale most of us had expected, while global capitalism reached a new, though increasingly shaky equilibrium. This particular Weimar in slow motion was moving very slowly, indeed.(4)

At first, however, events seemed to vindicate our optimistic outlook. In 1999 the successful blockade of the WTO conference in Seattle made the global left break out in jubilation. The “Anti-Globalization Movement” was born. “The fire next time” had been lit, in the heart of the beast.

Hence, when Cliff died in 2000, it seemed that his boldest predictions were about to come true. The Tendency was bristling with confidence and longing for the real battle, Cliff had so artfully prepared us for, to finally commence. Also, the revolutionary household Cliff left behind seemed perfectly ordered, so the leading layer of activists imagined to be in position to weather the upcoming storm.

Tony Cliff’s final distributions of tasks

Cliff left behind some clarification of the distribution of power he wished to see in place after his departure. If you read Cliff’s autobiography, you will find that there is quite some name dropping going on. A careful arrangement of a post-Cliff power pattern is clearly intended. Chris Bambery as National Secretary, Alex Callinicos heading the Tendency, and so on. The German experiment – Cliff’s beloved child of late – receives one final upgrade with a whole chapter entitled: “Linksruck – a success story”. The American comrades, on the other hand, could have been treated somewhat more nicely in the book, you might think.

In Britain, Cliff’s heritage seemed particularly well-ordered and power was to remain were it used to be: it automatically fell to the CC left over from Cliff: Chris Harman, Alex Callinicos, Chris Bambery, John Rees, Lindsey German, Pat Stack, Julie Waterson, Dave Hayes … this CC had been selected by Cliff himself and commanded authority. Below it were some rising stars. There existed a broad layer of well established, highly respected elder comrades. Finally, there were a handful of founding comrades left from Cliff’s own generation.

All this gave you the impression of a skilfully-built, rock solid construction – too solid, perhaps.

The first year without Cliff: the Linksruck implosion

Revolutionary leaders traditionally seem to have bad luck with such pre-posthumous arrangements. In Cliff’s case, too, there were more than cosmetic problems with the given pattern, which were clear even by the time his autobiography was published.

Florian Kirner, for instance, who is quoted at some length in the Linksruck chapter and presented as the editor of Linksruck, had in the meantime resigned from all party positions, very soon to be expelled. Ahmed Shah, for almost ten years “Cliff’s man in Germany”, descended from power under scandalous circumstances soon after.

The German success story took a sharp, nasty turn, and within months Linksruck imploded, losing the bulk of its 1,000 or so members.

This did not come as total surprise to every observer, maybe. These German young Turks had displayed some overconfident zealousness. No surprise: Cliff had agitated their youthful leaders over and over again that Germany was the key to the international situation, with them, personally, being the key to the German revolution. Messages like that were a lot to stomach for youngsters in their early twenties. This was part of an educational program Cliff unapologetically called: “cloning”.

Risen to the sky of the Tendency like a rocket in Cliff’s final years, crashing down like a stone within months after his passing, Linksruck paid the price for ambitious dreams of an upturn, but also stumbled over the downsides of a particular style of education.

The first year without Cliff: the expulsion of our American section

The disastrous shake-up inside the Tendency in the first year without Cliff did not stop in Germany. What happened in Germany and America are connected in curious ways.

While Linksruck, sharing and regularly surpassing Cliff’s urgent expectations for “the fire next time”, imploded – the American ISO, mildly sceptical of such prophecies, was expelled from the Tendency, accused of “conservatism” and “abstentionism”. Allegedly, the ISO failed to share “the Seattle perspective”. The real reasons for the expulsion of one of our most prominent sections were never clear to the vast majority of comrades.

So how then did this expulsion (it was, damn it: not a split!) come about? Who was responsible for this disaster, leaving us without any serious representation in the United States to this very day?

Some were responsible due to their irresponsible lack of action and interest. Pat Stack, for instance. When I once asked him about an important international issue, he declined to make a judgement saying: “You have to ask Callinicos about this. He is the man who rules the Tendency.” Take Lindsey German. At the height of the conflict with the ISO, I presented her with an extended hypothesis that the conflict might have to do with a lasting influence of Shachtmanism. “You seem to have a whole theory about this!” Lindsey exclaimed lightheartedly. She did not seem to bother even having any kind of serious explanation for the loss of our American section – while her partner, John Rees, happily played a very pro-active role in pushing the ISO out of the Tendency.

And internationally? The leaderships of the tiny sister groups of the mighty SWP understandably felt insecure in face of this utterly unexpected and quickly unfolding crisis. They left the decision to the British CC.

Starfleet & the IST: the Prime Directive

To be fair: the expulsion of ISO did meet some resistance. SEK split in the process and lost a third of its members. There were fierce conflicts about the issue in the bigger IS groups like Canada or Australia. The implosion of Linksruck also was fuelled by the opposition’s solidarity with ISO.

That this bizarre expulsion could be pulled off at all, had to do with the structure of the IST. Apart from the “International Meeting” once a year – a very casual kind of gathering, lacking all the glamour you might associate with it – there was practically no regular, formal communication going on, not to speak of any proper decision making. (5)

The assessment behind this lack of formal structure was twofold. First, there was some reluctance to follow other left currents in their mimicry of an International en miniature, having absolutely no mass support behind it. Secondly there was the connected insight that some chronic problems in the history of the Third International from 1919 onwards had to be avoided.

Rosa Luxemburg had been opposed to the Comintern’s very foundation and her worries were tragically justified before long. “The Russians”, carrying huge weight as the victors of the worlds’ first communist revolution, and having superior means at their disposal as owners of a sizeable state apparatus, soon started to intervene with gusto all around the world. The list of utterly disastrous interventions by this or that Russian representative is long and painful. People like Bela Kun or Karl Radek were able to destroy more than one promising revolutionary situation.

The official doctrine of the IST therefore was the good old “Prime Directive” of the United Federation of Planets (aka Starfleet’s “General Order #1”): no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations!

Digressions from the Prime Directive

The one big exception to the Prime Directive was called: “Tony Cliff”. Tony Cliff sending letters abroad, Tony Cliff hanging on the phone, Tony Cliff using every occasion to chat with comrades from all over the world in London, making up for his legal inability to travel. A chat with or a letter from Tony Cliff might have dramatic consequences.

Cliff became much more active in international matters in his final decade. The German experiment, for instance, of dissolving the old organisation in favour of Cliff’s cunning plan of entrism into the SPD’s youth, did not command much initial support. Cliff’s unquestioned authority in tactical matters combined with a feeling that the situation in Germany was bad enough that not much could be lost anyhow, carried the day. But even with Linksruck’s “success story”, tensions never really ceased.

Cliff did his best to shield the young German leadership from the ongoing controversy. But it was clear that his position inside the CC was not always very comfortable, and during Marxism and other occasions these tensions were acted out below Cliff’s radar.

Thus, the Prime Directive of non-intervention was increasingly undermined during the 90s. Mostly by Cliff himself, but also by various British CC members. John Rees and Chris Bambery, in particular, started to “cliff around” a bit on their own account. Meanwhile the role played by the International Secretary lacked any palpable definition beyond Alex Callinicos being it.

The ISO and the SWP: a complex affair

There were other factors of some weight inside IST. The Greek SEK seemed on their way to catch up with the SWP in size and influence (which they did in the meantime, mostly by the SWP shrinking). SEK’s leadership was ostentatiously treated as equals by the British CC. Yet their interest in international issues remained generally low.

The much smaller ISO on the other hand achieved a stubborn and steady buildup of their numbers under difficult political circumstances. Like SEK they were not too interested in other organisations’ business, but leading members of the ISO played a very prominent and independent role in the development of IS theory and general perspectives, in analyses of the world economy, the twists and turns of imperialism and so on. Several ISO leaders were among the most popular speakers at Marxism and contributed regularly to the ISJ or Socialist Review. The top cadre of the ISO and SWP was intertwined by quite a few intense friendships. It all looked like another Anglo-American love affair – except that there was a sizeable legacy of past hostilities and distrust, stemming from as far back as 1978.

Back then, our “man who rules the tendency” had played a prominent and typically dubious role in a split occurring in the ISO’s predecessor.

The ISO rejoined the tendency in the wake of the first gulf war in 1990. A meeting to test the grounds for this re-union took place in Cliff’s house in Hackney. Everything went smooth – until the old issues came up in the discussion. This immediately resulted in a terrible row. Still, the ISO re-joined the IST and during the following decade this cooperation grew ever more intense.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere between the ISO leaders and Alex Callinicos was not rosy. When I visited the ISO in the late 1990s, the opinion about the man’s character was expressed by a then member of the ISO’s steering committee in the words: “He lies with impunity!” (6)

The man who rules the Tendency wants to rule it … alone!

Where did this setting leave us in the event of Cliff’s death? Unlike the SWP, the household of the Tendency was not very well ordered at all. A formal structure did not exist. The natural heir of Cliff’s long standing prerogative to override the “Prime Directive” of Non-Intervention was its International Secretary. To believe, however, that the ISO would from now on happily follow the lead of Alex Callinicos, required a lot of wishful thinking. And as we know, Alex Callinicos is not a man of such extended imagination.

You really have to understand these hidden dynamics to grasp the full monstrosity of the ISO’s bizarre expulsion. What happened in that so-called “split” against the ISO was nothing else, but a pre-emptive strike, orchestrated by the man who wished to rule the Tendency alone in the future. Alex Callinicos just loves “pre-emptive strikes”.

You cannot believe this? In that case explain the political reasons. Go back and read the documents leading up to that brutal ousting. (They are mostly available on the net.) The disturbing truth is that there are no political reasons to be found for this mysterious disaster! If minor differences in the post-Seattle analyses can be detected at all, the ISO’s “conservatism” has been vindicated. But you will have a very hard time to find any basis for a serious disagreement out of these thoroughly weird documents, let alone discover any sufficient justification for kicking out a successful sister organisation.

On giants, dwarfs and my poor father

When it comes to the situation in the SWP and the qualification of the leading personnel Cliff had left behind, we discover a few problems deriving from Cliff’s overwhelming authority. Cliff often used the metaphor “standing on the shoulders of giants”, referring to the heritage of classical Marxism and revolutionary history. Up there, on the shoulders of Marx and Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, you can see far and wide, it was meant to say, even without being a giant yourself. But of course: you also can be seen quite well by others, up there.

Cliff himself was a giant in our eyes, and rightly so. The way up to his shoulders could be crowded at times, and those “leading comrades” who had managed to climb up there, could easily be mistaken for giants themselves, if watched from below. The authority various IST stars and SWP leaders enjoyed, was, however, not a mere fake. The general theoretical level back then was superb. The spirit of togetherness was real. We were in the thick of the struggle, whenever a struggle was fought.

But then I think of my poor father. He worked as a clerk for 45 years. In these long decades he was such a strong personality, full of willpower, a brave man, a man of conviction and values. After he retired, he changed radically. He became lazy and moody, bossing family members around and falling into self-pity the very next moment. I came to diagnose that his enduring stability in the long years of his working life had to do with a readymade structure imposed on him. Inside this structure he functioned smoothly and this structure also made him feel secure, which translated into confidence and strength.

Out of the job, he proved incapable of structuring himself.

For tactical option to concept to dogma: “Bending the stick” 

In the case of Cliff’s diadochi (7) this effect could be observed, too. This is not to say that Cliff only left epigones behind. Chris Harman, for instance, was a brilliant mind and a truly original thinker. (That he was a modest, comradely and sensitive person, greatly played to his disadvantage around 2004.) But generally it must be said that the leading personnel figured much larger with Cliff at the helm of the crowd than afterwards, without him.

To some extent this was due to the fact that Cliff was simply … Cliff. You had to be an idiot not to admire the energy and genius of the man. His determination transmitted a feeling of tremendous security to everyone connected to him. “Collective Leadership” was a mere ideal, as long as Cliff was alive.

There were some real problems, related to his style of leadership, too. Growing up in unforgiving opposition to a bureaucratically frozen Stalinist left, Cliff was very much aware of the danger of creeping bureaucratisation. So he came to simply love sharp turns, which he saw as necessity in revolutionary politics, a healthy counter measure to comfortable stagnation.

Initially, to bend the stick very hard in one direction in order to break inertia and make the party move, was just one tactical option, reserved for use in rare, extreme cases. In Cliff’s biography of Lenin, “Bending the stick” evolved as a full blown concept. Over time “Bending the stick” was in inflationary use and increasingly degenerated into a ready excuse for all kinds of crude turns at all levels of the party. Every cruelty and exaggeration tended to be legitimized as great tactical skills. “Bending the stick” lead to overcompensation for mistakes that had to be compensated by another round of “Bending the stick”. Sticks were broken more than once. And the cadre was educated to follow these sharp turns swiftly. (Naturally, sober hacks were much better suited for this regular exercise than hot-blooded independently-thinking rebels.)

Cloning the cadre: Cliffs revolutionary chemistry 

The “cloning” process was another, related problem.

Like Lenin, Cliff could suddenly fall in – and out! – of love with people. Had he fallen in love with some comrade he did everything to mould him to a fully fletched revolutionary. Being cloned by Cliff was a tough experience, however. ISO leader Ahmed Shawki had fled Britain for the United States to emancipate himself from Cliff’s influence. The list of people who neither made such a bold move nor survived their treatment in Cliff’s laboratory is long and sad.

This is not to say that Cliff intended to produce epigones. Far from it, he sometimes seemed to beg for someone disagreeing with him. And if you dared to do so, his reaction normally was one of surprising openness and warmth. Speaking publicly, Cliff never forgot to emphasise the need to put everything into question at all times, as the circumstances might change every minute – and with them, established truths could suddenly turn into obstacles. Also, ever since the theory of state capitalism, Cliff as a theoretician, was most impressive for his ability to intellectually break through systems of generally-accepted believes.

But it must be said that Cliff’s Menschenkenntnis followed Lenin’s example, too: his understanding of other peoples’ character was hopelessly poor at times. Cliff also underestimated the power and the impact of his personality. Without Cliff’s shoulders to lift them up and his brilliant directions, many “giants” turned out to be rather short-sighted dwarves.

They increasingly reminded me of my father, the retired clerk… But make no mistake: nothing is more dangerous than a short-sighted clerky dwarf impersonating a revolutionary giant.

Where is the old guard?

Did Cliff lead to Callinicos? Today, the old guard he left behind is mostly gone. Some are dead, and I am inclined to say: it was the best of the gang who have passed away: Duncan Hallas, Julie Waterson, Paul Foot, Chris Harman … Others have sunk into obscurity, like the former Linksruck leaders, or got kicked out of the family, like our comrades in the ISO. And what ever happened to Dave Hayes? Why did Mark Steel leave the party in 2007? Where are Kevin Ovenden, Elane Heffernan, Rob Hoveman, Guy Taylor? I do not miss John Rees and Lindsey German tremendously, but their replacements are not a great improvement on them, are they?

To cut the history of the Tendency after Cliff short: we have lost too many of our very best people and promoted too many third-rate figures.

Chris Bambery was an active player in a cruel and deteriorating system of control, and it can be argued that he finally got to taste the fruit he used to dish out so generously. Yet reading Bilko’s bitter letter of resignation really makes you wonder how a mediocre figure like Martin Smith could dare to talk down to a devoted revolutionary of Bilko’s stature in such a derogatory fashion. By the way: did the CC make sure to pay Chris Bambery the money back he lent to the party? Or are we thieves now, too? How far we have come!

To be sure: not all that glittered was gold in the party of Cliff’s lifetime. There have been stupidities, cruelties and fuckups all along – and naturally so. You have every right to make mistakes if you are fighting for a better world. And there is no blueprint how to build a revolutionary party.

That said, you simply cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall.

The master of disaster

What we see at this very moment is just the latest dramatic episode in a process of disintegration going on for more than ten years. You cannot keep on kicking out the most creative minds and best fighters year after year … and then be surprised if the moral and intellectual level continues to fall. This process has one central figurehead and his name must be called out in public to take the responsibility for a decade of permanent factional wars and a poisonous internal atmosphere full of lies, slander, intimidation and pre-emptive strikes from the top down.

Not, because he is the sole root of all problems.

But he is the single biggest obstacle to renewal!

It is absolutely evident that there can be no turn-around before falling off the … Cliff, without the removal of Alexander Theodore Callinicos from any leadership position.

He must be stripped from a lone power he has accumulated throughout a decade of decline, factionalism and moral corruption.

Cliff may have had too great a love for radical “turns” and the tactical device of “Bending the stick”. But this is a time to not only bend the stick hard – but to swing it like a dancing club over the heads of would-be leaders that have presided over a decade of decline.

If the party is lost, a new one has to be built. It happened before in revolutionary history. Still, there is hope.

The party is still alive. But in order not to die very, very soon, it must break free. The fish starts to rot from the head. But if there is anything a real revolutionary should be able to do, it is cutting off heads.

Breaking free!

The current crisis shows not only the depth of the degeneration the SWP and our Tendency have suffered. It also shows a surprising core of healthy spirit and very good people left inside this organism. Instead of freaking out about the lack of discipline on behalf of our “Seymourites” and “China-men”, I am damn grateful that this shadow of our once proud party managed to recruit such prolific representatives of a new radical generation. They might make up for the terrible drain of so many of our best people.

And instead of whining and screaming about the bad, bad internet we should at last develop a serious analysis of the bloody thing and use it to the best of our common cause.

Our common cause? The abnormal situation we face is that today there are far more people identifying themselves with the IS tradition outside of our official organisations than inside.

Many were kicked out, many have left in disgust thanks to a cruel and increasingly corrupt internal regime.

Others may have had real political differences, but I suspect that many of them would see these differences minimized by time and the terrible effects the auto-cannibalism of a decaying capitalist system is bringing about.

Should we rid ourselves of old mistakes and our own bureaucracy, if we open up for new people, if we take a fresh look at new ideas and new movements, fearlessly welcoming everybody to our ranks who is burning to take part in a real, global fightback – we will find that there are many more of us today than we see in the lists of our branches.

So fight for the SWP with everything you have, as good as you can.

Should the party be lost, however, a new one must and can be built.

(1) Internationally the picture is similar. The Greek SEK seems to experience some growth amidst a wild escalation of domestic class struggle, but this cannot cover up for a recent history of splits all over the Tendency and the loss of ISO (US), Linksruck (Germany) and a bulk of the Tendency’s once up to 20,000 global members.

(2) Before the party exploded to some size in the late 60s and early 70s, Cliff and a handful of comrades had built the nucleus of our Tendency in far less favourable circumstances.

(3) The Weimar Republic in Germany (1919 – 1933). The reference to “Weimar” was used in this context to describe a parliamentary democracy plunging into total crisis with society experiencing mass radicalisation in the wake of deep economic depression.

(4) Writing for an audience that displays some addiction to wilful misunderstandings of various kinds, I state here clearly: that the aforementioned passage is not intended to downplay or even make any analytical statement about the current state of the capitalist crisis – it purely serves to contrast the development with our expectations in the final years of Cliff.

(5) Actually the expulsion of ISO stands to this very day as the only formal decision the Tendency has made as a whole body in its whole history – while the formal correctness of the move is open to a lot of questions…

(6) This is an observation I have found to be true many times ever since, and if you wish: google any one of the uncounted unaccounted splits that took place in the Tendency all over the worlds since Alex Callinicos fully took over, unhindered by Cliff or anybody else: you will find hundreds of (ex-) comrades claiming the extensive use of lies and smear tactics on his behalf.

(7) After Alexander the Great’s sudden death in very young age, his empire was divided between his eight sons in a series of wars.


Filed under Left Politics

“Once Tiberius is dead I, Sejanus, will rule as Emperor in Rome”

Sometimes, Suetonius can be a better guide than Lenin

Sometimes, Suetonius can be a better guide than Lenin

Well, things are developing as we reach the run-in to special conference. And there are contradictory signals. There are depressing if predictable reports of oppositionists being bullied intensely, and a trickle of not very voluntary resignations; there’s also the CC not-a-faction’s enthusiasm for stitching up conference delegations to the exclusion of all critics, even if that means sending fewer delegates than the district is entitled to.

On the other hand, there are signs of small wobbles, meagre bones, coming out of the Central Camarilla. For one thing, the “destroy all students” motion from Tottenham has been withdrawn, apparently because it wasn’t entirely congruent with what the CC is trying to do. Moreover, the Unite Against Fascism conference has just been held and was remarkable for two things – firstly, Delta didn’t attend, and secondly, Delta was not on the list of nominees for the new executive.[1]

There’s actually something approaching a nuanced line coming out of the CC at the moment, although it doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the less reflective of their supporters. Firstly, there’s an attempt to draw a distinction between the “good” opposition and the “bad” opposition – that is, those who will eventually submit to Big Brother and those who won’t. Secondly, it is being put about by the CC that Delta is no longer on the party payroll (technically true, though the appointment he currently holds is in the party’s gift) and that he’s being taken out of the public eye. This, they hope, will draw a line under the matter, pacify the “good” opposition and allow some exemplary discipline to be meted out to those pesky kids on the internet.

What gives the lie to all this, of course, is that the CC – and Alex has been quite candid about this when comrades have asked him – still think Delta is so important that, after a decent cooling-off period, he should be restored to the front line. It’s hard to express on how many levels this is wrong. But it does rather beg the question, why is the CC so determined to protect this sleazy old pervert? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to dump him? And this opens up a line of thought.

There are certain fairly obvious factors. Delta may be a bully, a thug, a habitual liar and a charmless oaf, but he does have a constituency in the party. There are certain areas where he’s led from the front and been prepared to get his hands dirty, and some in the party prefer that to a supercilious, aloof theoretician. He was also centrally involved in the dumping of John Rees and the driving through of the post-Rees consolidation perspective. Not to mention that, though Delta himself is no longer on the CC, he has several rather obvious proxy votes on that august body. But there are other factors, to do with both politics and the way the organisation functions.

The personnel factor

Let’s talk about indispensability. It’s generally thought by students of organisation that people making themselves indispensable is a bad thing. In fact, you should strive to make yourself dispensable, training up people who are qualified to be your successor. Sadly, in real-world bureaucracies, this isn’t always the case.

The situation in the SWP is complicated in that, while Cliff was alive, he actually was indispensable. But Cliff was unique – a genius, a force of nature who embodied the soul of the party, and while he could be an almighty pain in the fundament from time to time, he was genuinely irreplaceable.[2] However, nobody below Cliff was indispensable, as close collaborators like Mike Kidron, Jim Higgins and Steve Jefferys found to their cost. And while the current semi-feudal set-up, with individual CC members having wide autonomy in their areas, did originate under Cliff, in some ways it functioned a bit like Yugoslavia, with Cliff in the Marshal Tito role as ultimate arbiter and the others as the regional party secretaries. Cliff, ultimately, was the brake on any individual’s autonomy and the guarantor against elements of the leadership going off the rails. This was an imperfect system while Cliff was alive, and its imperfections have become glaringly obvious in the 13 years since he died.

The autonomy of party leaders in their areas is well-established by now, and pretty well respected even within the CC. Alex, for instance, runs the international tendency, and it’s quite rare for anyone else in the leadership to stick their nose in. Cliff used to overrule him of course, and not infrequently go behind his back, but in recent years the good professor has had the field more or less to himself.

A more striking example is the case of John Rees. When Respect split back in 2007, one thing we quite rapidly discovered was how two of the SWP’s main organising principles at leadership level – the monopoly of information and the autonomy of the individual CC member – worked in practice. It came to light, for instance, that Salma Yaqoob had been frozen out of Respect for months, and Galloway had not known this, because all information went through Rees. Most of the CC had no idea what was going on in Respect, much less had contact with Galloway, because everything went through John and Lindsey. (This may have been academic – I can’t imagine Harman getting on with Galloway – but the point stands.) The operative model in a front was that the responsible CCer would sit at the centre like a spider in the middle of a web. It was similar in Stop The War, which is one reason why the party lost control of Stop The War after Lindsey had departed, and that’s another factor that may be weighing on the CC’s collective mind. (Or at least on Alex, who represents what’s left of the CC’s brains trust after Chris Harman died.)

A digression on the history of IS industrial strategy

One thing that’s not very well understood, even by SWP members, is that the concept of rank and fileism is not something that Cliff plucked out of his left ear one fine morning. In fact it’s much more deeply rooted in the organisation’s ideological DNA. In some ways it goes back to Cliff’s work on state capitalism in the 1940s, which was not merely a critique of Stalinism, but more broadly positioned the group as strongly anti-bureaucratic in its political orientation. This was reconfirmed in the 1960s, during IS’s libertarian phase[3], when the group began to take a serious interest in trade union issues. The operative perspective was that the rank-and-file workers had a fundamental conflict of interest with the trade union bureaucracy; while one might support a Broad Left candidate in union elections or even participate in a Broad Left, this was only on the basis that a left leadership would give the rank and file more space to operate in than a right leadership. In fact, Cliff spent years flaying the Communist Party for its electoral strategy in the unions, which by the 1970s had reduced the CP to a left-wing mudguard for Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon.

Over the years, the how of the party’s rank-and-file strategy – the precise mechanism  for mobilising the workers at workplace level – has varied enormously. In the early 1970s IS went in big time for factory branches, at one point having some forty of them. There were also around this time rank-and-file papers like the Carworker or the Collier, which raised the group’s profile enormously in specific industries. The party’s rank-and-file networks, however, didn’t survive the downturn, and were wound up in the early 1980s as the SWP returned to basic branch-building as its survival strategy.

Some of these tactics were revived, however, in the mid-1990s when Cliff thought there might be the beginnings of a new upturn in trade union activism. There were attempts at workplace branches, and workplace bulletins patterned after those of the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvrière, and even rank-and-file newspapers. None of those lasted very long or left much of a mark, though the papers aimed at postal workers and London Underground workers were produced with some élan and helped make the career of an ambitious young full-timer, Martin Smith, who has since moved on to other projects.

That upturn failed to happen, of course, and an observer might suggest that the continued passivity of the unions, and their changing role in society, is something that needs to be analysed (while there is a crying need for a serious study like Harman and Callinicos’ The Changing Working Class from 1987, the theoretical journal has published almost nothing on this for the last fifteen years or so). But it would be a mistake to think the party has given up entirely on a rank-and-file strategy. It’s retained the same basic theoretical structure, though this has evolved in an ad hoc, untheorised way.

What the party has been able to do, over the last decade or so, is organise conferences which are supposed to be the launch-pad for rank-and-file networks, though networks never seem to materialise out of them. In 2006 there was an initiative called Organising For Fighting Unions (OFFU), which held a conference of around 700 activists, became a bone of contention in the Respect split, and was never heard of again. OFFU was supplanted by a new front, Right To Work (RTW), which was given some prominence by the party after the Coalition government came to power in 2010, and organised a conference of around 700 activists. RTW was mothballed by the party for reasons that remain obscure but may be related to the resignation of the responsible CC member, Chris Bambery.

The latest initiative is something called Unite the Resistance (UtR), which organised a conference of around 700 activists in November 2012. Now, you may think this is just running to stand still, and some cynics in the party have groused that UtR is set up on just as wobbly a political basis as RTW was. However, it is different in one important respect. UtR specifically does not market itself to party members as a rank-and-file initiative; indeed, it is explicitly conceived as a medium to long-term alliance with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The CC stated as much in last year’s Pre-Conference Bulletins:

“Precisely because a militant rank and file movement does not exist, UtR must also reach out to those left wing officials prepared to call for and support action. This is not simple, because even the best officials will vacillate. Nonetheless, if we are to give UtR the breadth and implantation it requires in the working class we need to bring on board those figures in the unions who can give confidence to wider layers of union members to fight. That’s why it is right that figures such as Mark Serwotka or Kevin Courtney of the NUT have spoken at and been involved in building UtR …”

In so far as this makes any sense, it seems to follow a logic familiar from South Park’s Underpants Gnomes:

  1. Give a platform to left bureaucrats.
  2. ?
  3. A militant rank-and-file movement emerges!

Some of the CC’s critics, internal and external, have said that this alliance is founded on an opportunist basis, and that UtR is precisely the sort of thing Cliff used to attack the CP for. I think this is not quite correct. Given that there’s no obvious benefit to the party from this arrangement, except a vague promise that the party will be shown the sunny side of Mark Serwotka’s countenance, it’s the sort of arrangement Bert Ramelson would have regarded as opportunistic. Nonetheless, it is the strategy in place, even if the implications haven’t been made explicit (and indeed, may not have been thought through even at CC level).

The cleft stick

Which brings us back to the question of why precisely the CC is so keen to protect Delta. One has to look at what the CC’s perspective is for the next period. At the risk of oversimplifying, the CC believes there are two absolutely crucial areas of work – anti-fascism and industrial strategy. The latter being the more important, as at party conference in January, industrial strategy was given twice as much time as any other subject. And as we shall see, Delta is considered indispensable in both areas. It’s reminiscent of how, when the two key areas were Respect and Stop The War, John Rees was indispensable, though comrades may feel that in exchanging the Rees regime for the Delta regime, they have exchanged the rule of Sejanus for the rule of Caligula.

Let’s take industrial strategy first. As noted, this revolves around UtR, which itself is based on the party forging a close alliance with a handful of left union leaders; and these are based in specific unions, most notably PCS and NUT. The point man for this is Delta, whose close personal relationships with two or three union leaders have made UtR possible. Essentially, the CC believe they need Delta around so they can deliver those union leaders onto those platforms. Moreover, looking at who else is in the Industrial Department these days, they may have a point.

(It is also worth pointing out that at January’s conference the two groups of delegates who were most solid in support of the CC’s line on the Delta case were PCS and NUT comrades; and that the most fanatical members of the CC’s Lynch Mob Faction, aside from full-time organisers, are SWP members who either sit on or are running for union executives.)

The other aspect of this is anti-fascism, and there’s an argument to be had about whether this merits the stress the CC place on it. Greece and Hungary may be useful for scaring the kids and dramatising the economic crisis, but in the actual conditions of present-day Britain, the BNP has imploded and the EDL has been in serious decline for the last two years.[4] If the Coalition falls, the alternative on the right is not a band of street-fighting fascists but the libertarian-populist Ukip – and, whatever you think of Ukip’s politics, it is absolutely not credible to view Nigel Farage as the second coming of Andrew Brons.

Be that as it may, the CC continues to believe that UAF is a crucially important area for the party. And this is another feather in Delta’s cap. The responsible CC member, Weyman Bennett, has frequently been absent on health grounds; and, even when he is there… well, even Weyman’s best friend wouldn’t say he was a born administrator. So the energetic Delta has effectively been running UAF, and, to be scrupulously fair, hasn’t made too bad a fist of it. He’s led from the front and made some sharp tactical turns.

So this puts the CC’s defence of Delta in some sort of perspective. In terms of their political perspective, he is the indispensable man – the united front of one – who can make things happen. He has become so crucial to the perspective that the CC appear willing to drive the party onto the rocks to defend him. This may be crazy – indeed, it is crazy – but there’s a certain internal logic to it which makes sense if you spend all your time in the cloistered world of the SWP Centre.

It may not be tenable, of course. The union leaders who are so crucial to the UtR project may decide that being publicly identified with a man who’s been outed in the national press as an alleged sex pest may not be what their image needs. It’s also the case that union money bankrolls UAF – this year’s conference was sponsored by the PCS, NUT and NASUWT – which can be viewed as an indirect subsidy to the party. The CC has painted itself into a corner over Delta; the unions, if they wake up to how toxic this whole thing is, may force them out of it.

[1] Although it may be worth watching to see if he manages to sneak back in, for instance as a delegate from LMHR.

[2] Take the question of why Duncan Hallas abandoned the IS Opposition in the mid-70s split, after having set it up. There are lots of theories around this, centring around what deal Cliff might have struck with Duncan and what pressures Duncan might have been under, but I think the fundamental point is that Duncan couldn’t imagine IS surviving without Cliff in the leadership.

[3] This is also the root of the ingrained anti-statism in the IS/SWP tradition, which possibly sheds some light on the reluctance of party members to involve the police in rape complaints. There was a similar phenomenon at Occupy New York, which certainly didn’t arise from “Leninism”.

[4] Indeed, the EDL’s major activity these days appears to be that of trolling Delta’s Twitter feed.


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