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

9 responses to “Building the leadership

  1. Speaking as someone who is currently a CC ‘loyalist’, I feel this post – probably one of your better posts on the SWP – is aimed at someone like me and deserves some kind of brief response. The basic analytical weakness with your analysis of the SWP is – unsurprisingly – the same as that underlying that of the faction on this particular question – the lack of politics.

    Of course it is the case that in any healthy revolutionary party – to quote Hallas – ‘rigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented’. But it is ridiculous to say that the SWP today doesn’t have any internal rigorous controversy taking place or that various tendencies and shades of opinion are not being represented in the internal arguments taking place!

    But the reason why the majority of the SWP more or less support the CC on this current question is not because of some psychological or emotional attachment to ‘loyalty’ per se. If the CC say decided they were not going to support the upcoming PCS strike on 20 March – or were going to support Western imperialism in Mali – are you seriously arguing that the majority of the SWP would say ‘well, we trust the CC on this question, they must be right?’ Of course not – ordinary members of the party would do their revolutionary duty to try and force the CC to change its position through the channels open to them – NC, party council etc etc and if this kind of pressure didn’t work then branches would demand a special conference to debate this question and force the CC to change its position, etc etc. Of course they would. But it is politics – Marxist politics – that is decisive here.

    As someone outside the SWP you can pontificate as much as you like about the so called ‘authoritarianism’ of the SWP leadership – but the fact remains – if the majority of actual SWP members felt the same way about their leadership, then they could and would change the composition of the CC at the next annual conference. I don’t really want to end with a quote from Stalin, but as he once put it, ‘the cadres decide everything’ in a revolutionary party. He did have a point here. To convince the majority of the SWP cadre over any question – you need to make a political argument about the subject in hand. It remains to be seen what the SWP special conference will decide on Sunday – but you can be sure of one thing – the majority of those delegates will form their opinions based on thinking about the quality of the political arguments advanced by SWP members – not essentially apolitical critiques of the SWP leadership online written by those outside the party.

    • Snowball, you’re a smart sort of cove. You *know* that the regime question is a political question. And for all your studied disdain of outsiders, you must know that this issue is so toxic that, if something radical isn’t done, the party simply won’t have a periphery any more.

    • Well, this is rather the non sequitur that is bandied about to prevent any critique of how we organize internally – it’s apolotical. So, if the leadership stacks meetings or lies or hounds oppositionists out of the organization, this isn’t political. And if the leadership wins votes on the basis of underhanded methods it demonstrates the correctness of the path and the infallibility of the cadre (even where they have been lied and misled). And there’s the rub here: the opposition says that this is precisely what the CC and the apparatus of full-timers who are directly under their control are doing. You may deny that is taking place but it is simply untenable to argue it is apolitical to critique such bureaucratic methods.
      Of course you are right to point out that the “regime question” exists in and arises from a historical/political context. Molyneux a few years ago hinted at the causes of bureaucratism in the party in his ISJ article on democracy – correctly, IMHO, rooting it in the relative passivity of the working class post mid-70s. Few, including Molyneux himself, have drawn the logical conclusions from that. My guess is that no one is prepared to face the implications, because they are distrurbing and the challenges not easily overcome. It seems clear, however, that the party – in a context of uneven and unsustained working class struggle – needs to periodically review and renew its structures to resist and overcome the tendency towards bureaucratism that is a side effect of needing to maintain a stable organization across uneven levels of activity, consciousness and organization. I’ve come to believe that the failure to do this sooner is also behind our international failure to benefit from our excellent work in the anti-war movement.

      • oskarsdrum

        Quite so! Also, to add to Jack’s point below, how about all these significant and damaging mistakes (well – to a greater or lesser extent) that the cadres rubber stamped compliantly:

        * dismantling the branches
        * Galloway lash-up / Respect (shibboliths, Left List and all)
        * People Before Profit Charter, or whatever that was called
        * Right to Work
        * recurring daft expulsions
        * denouncing the Lindsay strike (arguable, but “Those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire.” looks a mistake to me, and certainly should have caused ‘vigorous controversy’, especially since the SP managed to lead the strikes into ditching racist slogans and some fine victories)
        * failing to engage with Coalition of Resistance

        Instead, every so often a personalised crisis on the CC explodes out of nowhere (from the point of view of members outside the leading clique, anyway) and a couple of individuals get blamed for the systemic problems. Until now, it’s never been forced by cadres. And with much the same dynamic as the periodically acute manifestations of long-standing profitability crisis, the scapegoating exercises only store up more difficulties for the future, making each recurrant eruption more severe. Until, finally, a section of cadres are goaded into action by something unquestionably appalling……and even then the CC “does not recognise” the right to act on the matter! This is not a healthy democratic culture. And that is not an apolitical contention!

    • Phil

      You know as well as I do that “the majority of actual SWP members” doesn’t decide anything & isn’t called on to do so. The numbers go to whoever mobilises the best, on the day and especially beforehand – that’s the way it goes in joint work, in united fronts (of whatever type) and now, it seems, within the party.

      I don’t at all accept that the opposition (or this post) wasn’t making a “political argument”. However, it was a political argument which also engaged questions of loyalty and stability. Mobilisation & counter-mobilisation within the party on a question of political orientation might be a benign and productive process (although it’s hard to tell, as it’s so rarely allowed to happen.) When the question is “do you support the leadership or do you side with the faction which criticises the leadership?”, it’s absurd to think that you could reach a satisfactory answer by the usual organisational methods – deployed, predictably, with particular vigour by the loyalists.

      On inner-party democracy, your argument for the status quo has one big problem – the evidence it relies on is all negative. If the members were consistently happy with the leadership and with the party’s policies & orientation, you’d see no challenges to the leadership and no agitation for a change of direction. And if there were no functioning mechanisms for a challenge to any part of the leadership, and no realistic prospect of discontent among members resulting in a change of policies or direction, then you’d see… exactly the same thing. We’re going to want some positive evidence to add to the picture. We might look for signs of the leadership resolving repressed tensions within the party by other means, perhaps; sudden reversals of direction, expulsions of previously feted comrades. Anything like that happened in the last five years or so?

  2. John Palmer

    SGB: What you say is quite right. Cliff had a grossly overweight authority in the early Socialist Review group when he was a leading member of a very small propaganda group. Ditto when the SWP emerged and “defence of the party” became the over riding concern of the leadership around Cliff. In between – when the old IS began to develop a serious working class membership and an even bigger trade union periphery – the leadership was aware of “having to learn as well as to teach.” Cliff was opposed and on occasions persuaded to change his mind by the likes of Higgins, Hallas, Harris, MacIntyre and others.

  3. I agree with Snowball, this is ahistorical sophistry. So Trotsky identifies the original sin of Bolshevism in 1904, and then…. somehow joins the Bolsheviks in 1917. Presumably, under your schema, in those 13 years the Bolsheviks must have undergone endless self-criticism, review of internal structures and so on, to ward off the fatal danger of ‘bureaucratism’. How do you explain Lenin being in the leadership all that time? Was he a bureaucrat? Some said he was, that he was too obsessed with building a hard disciplined party. Lots of the intellectuals who left after the defeat of 1905 made precisely this point, in their various ways. How do you explain all the changes, retreats, turns, the massive loss of members between 1905 and 1914, the weaknesses and unevenness of the party, how they were able to hold onto a core of working class militants, survive repression, work legally and clandestinely, resist reactionary movements and respond to war? And all through this, respond to intense political criticism within their own ranks, and within the international – including, but not only, the examples you cite from Trotsky and Luxemburg. Are you saying that the Bolsheviks had somehow by 1917 developed some perfect organisational structure, with intricate factional mechanisms that enabled the members to ‘hold the leadership to account’? If this is what you think, then you are explaining nothing about Bolshevism – which was about hard, tough politics (resisting the pull to compromise with whatever the system could afford, the commitment to workers revolution) combined with disciplined organisation. Leave out those actual politics, and all you would see about the Bolsheviks in 1917 is the conservatism of the leadership that Lenin had to challenge in April. He didn’t kick them out of the party, he argued within the party for a change of course, to press on to the revolution. And when he’d won that argument, the party – including the leadership – acted in a disciplined manner in the Soviets, during the July Days and so on. That was how they could stake out a political position in the middle of enormous events and crises, and become an organised pole of attraction focused on winning the revolution. There’s been a lot of bluster recently about how ‘even the Bolsheviks allowed debate in 1917’. As if Lenin arrived at the Finland Station as said ‘what you need comrades is the right to form permanent factions outside of pre-conference periods’. I bet the Mensheviks had lots of fine phrases about inner-party discussion, freedom of opinion, democratic structures and so on. They counted for nothing, because their politics were rotten and they compromised with the ruling class at each step. And, it only confirms the point of ahistoricism that you refer to Stalinism as simply ‘a degeneration within our own movement’ – with no regard to the historical circumstances. I’d suggest you read Victor Serge, in case you don’t think Trotsky’s account of the relationship between Bolshevism and Stalinism is unreliable. My final point is this, The tragedy of Rosa Luxemburg is that she didn’t create an organisation that could embody her justified suspicion of the SPD leadership, and her deep commitment to workers revolution, until the very last moment. The consequences, personally and politically, were heartbreakingly enormous. If it had been up to Trotsky’s small organisation alone the Russian revolution would not have succeeded. If you build a party like that, I tell you straight, we’ll never win the revolution.

    • You neglect that the Bolsheviks developed over time and learned. And an integral part of that learning process involved intense internal debate and holding the leadership to account. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – who you claim were so terribly different – with one side being utter sell-outs and the other being “hard” – were in the same party for most of this time, existing as permanent factions, and largely met in the same branches until late in 1917. So much for the sin of permanent factionalism.
      But all this is just so much froth. To compare the present moment to conditions of illegality with an insurgent working class that had been through a revolutionary situation, followed by massive repression, another upsurge tending towards revolution and then a world war, followed again by revolution is, as you put it, “ahistorical sophistry.” There is no “leninist model of the party” in the sense of organizational prescriptions. That’s exactly the point and strength of Lenin (and Cliff): the organizational structures and priorities of an organization must be consciously determined on an ongoing basis to meet the historical needs of the struggle with an understanding of the stage of development of the party. The only way to know that is through debate, something that seems rather anathema to some whose greatest outrage is reserved for the mere existence of the faction – after all, it doesn’t fit the “leninist” model of suppressing internal debate (especially about the regime!) for 9 months of the year.
      It is news to me that Leninist principle dictates that politics is subordinate to the position of the earth in relationship to the sun. What’s next horoscopes in SW?

  4. jack

    I was in the SWP from the very late ’70s to the early naughties. I remember the arguments over Women’s Voice, Flame etc. Actually, that was the last time (until now, I guess) that significant numbers of people seemed willing to openly challenge the leadership in debate.

    Cut to the mid-’90s and I was in a London branch that was, like many others, ordered by the CC to split into about four separate branches. About four of us were to go to some far flung corner of the borough (a Tory stronghold) and ‘build.’ Now, the interesting thing was that everyone, and I mean everyone, knew that this was completely insane. Some were prepared to express this view privately. However, in the branch meetings all that could be heard was fevered talk of the ‘fantastic opportunities’ that existed for the party. That, as I recall, was the buzzword back then. Right now, I’d guess that no loyal cadre feels his or her job has been done unless the words ‘interventionist party’ and ‘our tradition’ has been chucked in at least four times in any branch contribution. The problem was, there weren’t fantastic opportunities.There were just four people sitting in a room saying that there were. Despite widespread anger against the Tories, it was incredibly difficult to persuade anyone to join a small revolutionary socialist organisation when the term ‘socialism’ was assumed to be discredited and working class organisation remained passive. The gap between hard reality and what was in Party Notes did not, however, lead to lively debate within the organisation. It fuelled the dependence on the leadership.

    For democracy to work in a group like the SWP, you don’t only need structures. You need a confident, independent-minded membership, you need a healthy balance of commitment and cynicism towards the leadership. You need an openness to arguments from the outside world that feed in and challenge assumptions. I’m afraid that during my fairly long period in the SWP I saw it become a more and more top-down culture.

    Actually, it would be a really interesting experiment if the CC did declare something totally out of the blue, like the PCS strike was not to be supported. There would be shock, but I’d be equally willing to bet there would be some individuals standing up in the branch meeting and confidently arguing that it was the right decision, and those who opposed it didn’t understand the current perspectives.