The Central Committee (CC) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has changed its line. For the first while after the SWP's unhappy conference on 4-6 January, the CC said that the conference had decided the controversial issues. The case was closed, SWP members were instructed to think and talk about other things, and, as for non-SWPers, it was none of their business.
Now it has felt obliged to open a public polemic. Alex Callinicos published a blast against the SWP opposition online on 28 January. It will appear in print in the SWP magazine Socialist Review.
Callinicos closes his article by declaring that he thinks the SWP will not collapse. The CC is rattled: it's as if someone, asked about an ailment, replies that she or he thinks it won't be fatal.
Far from resolving the SWP's problems, Callinicos's article epitomises them. Entitled "Is Leninism finished?", it uses the old polemical method of the "amalgam", a favourite of Stalinists. Callinicos tries to discredit his SWP opponents by lumping them in with others.
The writer Owen Jones, so Callinicos claims, looks to the Labour Party as an answer; the SWP splinter group Counterfire looks to the broad "movements"; both fail to see the need for coherent revolutionary-socialist organisation. Whether he's right about Jones or Counterfire is debatable; but in any case they are in the article only so as to smear the SWP opposition as similar.
Callinicos suggests that the SWP opposition is saying that "Leninism" is "finished", and he and the CC are defending "Leninism". Sliding from formulation to formulation, he describes the issues at stake successively as:
# "the model of democratic centralism... that the SWP has developed"
# "the revolutionary Marxist tradition"
# the "Leninist model of organisation"
# "acting as... a 'vanguard party'"
# coherent revolutionary-socialist organisation as against reliance on Labour or on broad movements
# failing to recognise the historic "centrality of workers' struggles", and thus, in a time of "absence of a sustained revival of working-class militancy", accepting miscellaneous broad movements, or a Labour Party which you hope to push left, as a substitute for revolutionary socialist organisation.
# and again, to round off, as "our [the SWP's] version of democratic centralism".
As if all these are the same, and anyone questioning Callinicos's version of democratic centralism rejects Marxism and the working class...
The term "Leninism" was coined in the period when Lenin himself was taken out of activity by illness and then death, in 1923-4, by the people in the Bolshevik Party leadership in Russia, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and others, who were accommodating to the conservatism and inertia of a state machine permeated by inheritances from Tsarism. It meant them using snippets and phrases from Lenin's writings to impose their control.
Trotsky, reckoning Lenin's basic ideas to have been right, and knowing that Lenin himself had urged him in 1922 to take the offensive against Stalin, decided not to provoke an easily-misunderstood debate by rejecting the term "Leninism", but rather to define it in his own terms (see box).
He defined "Leninism" as the unremitting struggle for ideological clarity, revolutionary honesty, and active political initiative based on the logic of the class struggle.
Lenin used the term "democratic centralism", but as a commonplace of effective organisation, not as a special new form he had invented. In a letter during World War One to left-wingers in the USA, he wrote: "We defend always in our press democracy in the party. But we never speak against the centralisation of the party. We are for democratic centralism. We say that the centralisation of the German labour movement is not a feeble but a strong and good feature of it. The vice of the present Social-Democratic Party of Germany consists not in centralisation but in the preponderance of the opportunists..."
Democratic centralism was and is a common-sense description of any organisation which is to act cohesively but on the basis of discussion. A choir which discusses democratically what it will sing, and then has all the different singers sing their parts in unison, is democratic centralist.
Revolutionary socialist politics needs a special sort of democracy and a special sort of centralism. It needs a democracy which comprises not just the formalities of voting, but well-informed debate on all the big political questions, driven by a truly revolutionary ardour for truth, and by a membership seriously educated in the whole heritage of socialist theory; and a rigorous accounting for mistakes.
It needs centralism, obviously, in the sense of the organisation acting cohesively to carry out majority-decided policies - to run campaigns, to circulate publications, to throw its influence one way or another on disputed issues in the labour movement.
It needs it more specifically in three senses. The organisation must collectively control its members who get positions in trade unions, or in parliaments and municipalities, rather than let them succumb to the pressures and influences of their positions.
The organisation must ensure that all its members are active, educated, and involved in the organisation's inner life. It must not, like social-democratic parties, have a big swathe of members who do little or whose political focus is elsewhere, in trade-union routine for example. If there are members who don't really know the issues in the organisation's debates, or don't have the necessary background education, or feel little commitment to carry out the eventual decisions, then the organisation's debates cannot be sharp and will often (as in social-democratic parties) be fudged, or swayed by demagogy or inertia.
Since the class struggle has sharp twists, the organisation must be able to reorient quickly and decisively. As Lenin put it in that same letter: "If in any given crisis the small group (for instance our Central Committee is a small group) can act for directing the mighty mass in a revolutionary direction, it would be very good". That capacity is established not by rules, but by the leading committees leading debates in the organisation with insight and honesty, so that they earn political authority.
Within those general guidelines, detailed forms of a revolutionary socialist organisation vary widely. In an intense and rapidly-changing political crisis, the organisation will need to be more brusquely "centralist" than in quieter times. One plague of revolutionary socialist organisations has been to take makeshifts which the Bolsheviks adopted in the Russian civil war - or in its aftermath when they faced problems of economic calamity, mass peasant discontent, and dispersal of working-class cadres - as the norm for all times.
The SWP adopts a model more "commandist" than the Bolsheviks even in the civil war, and more so than any of the Communist Parties in the days before Stalinism.
# A rule requiring all CC members, and all SWP full-timers, always to pretend unanimous agreement with CC decisions. No information to SWP members outside the CC about debates within the CC.
# No space for any articulated challenge to the CC line from the ordinary membership, outside a brief pre-conference period each year. No debate in the SWP's press, or even in an internal bulletin or internet forum, beyond a very occasional dissenting article in its quarterly journal. SWP members can grumble in their branch meetings, but it is impossible, outside a period of acute crisis like the present, for any group of members to articulate SWP-wide an alternative or amendment to the CC policy. The SWP calls this a ban on "permanent factions" (factions are allowed only in the weeks before each annual conference); but in fact it establishes a regime of one permanent faction in the SWP, namely the CC and its corps of full-time organisers.
# A rule requiring SWP members in public always to pretend unanimous agreement with the CC line.
# Each new CC is elected by a for-or-against vote on a slate presented by the outgoing CC, thus making it almost impossible for the membership to correct or amend the CC.
Callinicos does not defend those rules honestly, but hints at a defence by upholding "two things" which "our version of democratic centralism comes down to".
"Decisions must be debated fully, but once they have been taken, by majority vote, they are binding on all members... A strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction".
What does "binding" mean? Lenin proposed (as he put it in a 1906 article) "full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action". The minority is "bound" to unity in action, but should be free to explain publicly that they disagree.
AWL tells our members that when they disagree with the majority line, they should argue inside the AWL to change it. If they remain in the minority, then they should not pretend to hold opinions they don't really have. They should explain publicly what the AWL majority policy is, and the arguments for it as best they can; but they should also explain their own views.
SWP, by contrast with AWL and with Lenin, means, by "binding on all members", a rule that its members should, in public, pretend to be unanimous. In the long term this is corrupting: to train yourself to argue ideas you don't really believe is to erode the revolutionary drive to know and explain the truth about class society which is the motor force of socialist effort.
Callinicos's formulation blurs another, more specific, issue. In the SWP today the CC is saying that the 4-6 January SWP conference vote to endorse the SWP Disputes Committee report closes that issue, and those who object are breaching democratic centralism.
A 50.4% vote to endorse, after a hurried debate, chaired by a member of the Disputes Committee whose report was up for debate, allowing only a scant few minutes for a critic to argue against endorsement, coming after two years of CC mishandling and the CC expelling vocal critics for no greater crime than a conversation on Facebook - that counts as "discussing fully" only in terms of administrative box-ticking. The discussion cannot be made "full" just by the CC declaring it such.
The pious clause about "directly accountable to annual conference" is as much whitewash as the one about all "decisions debated fully". In any revolutionary socialist organisation, active every day on a dozen fronts, many decisions are taken by committees, by organisers, or by individual members in their workplaces or unions: the organisation is made democratic not by being in permanent conference session, but by full debate on the framing ideas which shape day-to-day reactions, and by constant feedback and discussion on the day-to-day.
The SWP is different not at all in debating more things "fully", but in a greater number of decisions being taken by the CC and handed down as slogans, by means of browbeating rather than debate.
The CC is "accountable to annual conference" in the sense that the conference has the formal possibility of voting out the CC. But that can only happen if the conference confronts the CC and overturns it in a straight yes/ no vote. There is no possibility of the conference modifying the CC by piecemeal amendment.
Callinicos defines the alternative advocated by the SWP opposition as: "a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions (currently factions are only allowed in the discussion period leading up to the annual party conference)".
His presentation is dishonest. As we have seen, in fact the SWP does not really ban permanent factions: it only establishes a rule of one permanent faction, the CC and its corps of full-time organisers.
The SWP frequently reverses "decisions already made", and usually without explanation or accounting. But... the right to revise decisions is reserved to the CC. The rule against "reopening" kicks in only when someone outside the CC questions a policy.
Political leaderships are not made "strong", politically, by rules saying that they are strong. The background to the current SWP crisis is a decline in the real strength - that is, the political self-assuredness and authority - of the CC; the inevitable result of it, even if the CC manages to see off the opposition, is a further decline in that real strength.
As Lenin put it: "How is the discipline of the proletariat's revolutionary party maintained? ... By the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard... By its ability to link up... with the broadest masses of the working people... By the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct... Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning... These conditions... are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience".
SWP members' "hard-won experiences" have eroded the political authority of the CC, not enhanced it.
Take the Respect fiasco and the "Left List" debacle which followed it. Take the example of the SWP's slogan "all out, stay out" for 30 November 2011, suggesting that the one-day strike could be made to grow into an indefinite one. It appeared from time to time in speeches or in Socialist Worker articles, but was never agitated for or explained. Presumably there was disagreement in the CC about it. Instead of debate, SWP members were presented with a flickering sloganistic half-thought.
Take the succession of SWP "united fronts" - Organise for Fighting Unions, Right to Work, Unite the Resistance. Each has been a formula for the SWP to organise occasional conferences with a few trade-union leaders on the platform, and a few stunts. The SWP CC hails each as a great advance, then drops it without explanation and goes on to the next one.
Callinicos's backstop argument is that the current SWP model "works", to build a big SWP and allow it to make itself central in bigger operations like Stop The War and Unite Against Fascism. "If they [the SWP opposition] succeeded, the SWP would become a much smaller and less effective organisation, unable to help build broader movements".
On that level of argument, the biggest would-be revolutionary organisation in each country in the world could claim that life has confirmed its specific ideas: the Maoist PTB/PvdA in Belgium, for example. Or the organisation which got itself central in organising the big demonstrations against the Iraq war could: the Stalinistic Workers' World Party in the USA, for example.
It proves nothing; and even on its own level Callinicos's argument is increasingly hollow.
The SWP still claims 7000 members. In the late 1990s it used to claim 10,000. Most of the nominal 7000 do no activity with the SWP, and many have no contact with it at all.
The SWP opposition reports that the SWP has 93 branches. When the forerunners of AWL were expelled from IS (forerunner of the SWP) in 1971, it had 115.
The notional count of 7000 would mean an average of 75 members per SWP branch. In fact, SWP branches today are generally smaller than they were in 1971, when 20 active members was quite usual. The SWP has declined.
Contrary to all Callinicos's talk about strong leadership and discipline, the SWP does very badly at ensuring all its members are active and informed. Both CC loyalists and opposition complain about finding meetings suddenly full of "members" not seen for years, drummed up to support the other side.
It also does very badly at another important "centralist" bit of democratic centralism: collective control over its members in trade-union posts. In 2010 its most prominent trade-unionist, CWU president Jane Loftus, resigned after a string of episodes in which she had voted in the CWU leadership against SWP policy. Similar has happened in other unions.
The SWP's version of "democratic centralism" lacks both the best bits of "centralism" and the special sort of democracy needed by revolutionary socialists.
In all this, what does Callinicos say about the issue which generated the SWP opposition, namely the botched handling of charges by women SWPers of rape or sexual harassment against leading SWP organiser Martin Smith?
SWPers, and not just SWPers, are angry that the CC tried to sweep the charges aside for two years; organised a standing ovation for Smith at the 2011 conference after they first emerged; and declared the "case closed" after an investigation by a Disputes Committee which included two members of that same CC and all of whose members knew Smith well.
Callinicos describes it all as... "a difficult disciplinary case".
Indiscipline, in a choir, is turning up to rehearsals late, or singing your part unsynchronised with the other singers. Sexually harassing, or raping, another choir member - that is a different matter.
Smith is innocent until proven guilty. The Disputes Committee may well have made a sincere effort. But if Callinicos sees the rape charge as just "a difficult disciplinary case", that tells you why so many SWPers are angry.
Lenin stood for revolutionary honesty
Revolutionary sense cannot be confused with demagogical flair. The latter may yield ephemeral successes, sometimes even sensational ones. But it is a political instinct of an inferior type.
It always leans toward the line of least resistance. Leninism, on the other hand, seeks to pose and resolve the fundamental revolutionary problems.
Leninism is, first of all, realism, the highest qualitative and quantitative appreciation of reality, from the standpoint of revolutionary action. Precisely because of this it is irreconcilable with the flight from reality behind the screen of hollow agitationalism, with the passive loss of time, with the haughty justification of yesterday’s mistakes on the pretext of saving the tradition of the party.
Leninism is genuine freedom from formalistic prejudices, from moralising doctrinalism, from all forms of intellectual conservatism attempting to bind the will to revolutionary action. But to believe that Leninism signifies that "anything goes" would be an irremediable mistake. Leninism includes the morality, not formal but genuinely revolutionary, of mass action and the mass party. Nothing is so alien to it as functionary-arrogance and bureaucratic cynicism.
A mass party has its own morality, which is the bond of fighters in and for action. Demagogy is irreconcilable with the spirit of a revolutionary party because it is deceitful: by presenting one or another simplified solution of the difficulties of the hour it inevitably undermines the next future, weakens the party’s self-confidence.
Swept by the wind and gripped by a serious danger, demagogy easily dissolves into panic. It is hard to juxtapose, even on paper, panic and Leninism.
Leninism is warlike from head to foot. War is impossible without cunning, without subterfuge, without deception of the enemy. Victorious war cunning is a constituent element of Leninist politics.
But, at the same time, Leninism is supreme revolutionary honesty toward the party and the working class. It admits of no fiction, no bubble-blowing, no pseudo-grandeur.
Leon Trotsky, The New Course
“We must not forget that even if we are centralists, we are democratic centralists who employ centralism only for the revolutionary cause and not in the name of the ‘prestige’ of the officials. Whoever is acquainted with the history of the Bolshevik Party knows what a broad autonomy the local organizations always enjoyed; they issued their own papers, in which they openly and sharply, whenever they found it necessary, criticized the actions of the Central Committee. Had the Central Committee, in case of principled differences, attempted to disperse the local organizations or to deprive them of literature (their bread and water) before the party had an opportunity to express itself—such a central committee would have made itself impossible. Naturally, as soon as it became necessary, the Bolshevik Central Committee could give orders. But subordination to the committee was possible only because the absolute loyalty of the Central Committee toward every member of the party was well known, as well as the constant readiness of the leadership to hand over every serious dispute for consideration by the party. And, finally, what is most important, the Central Committee possessed extraordinary theoretical and political authority, gained gradually in the course of years, not by commands, not by beating down, but by correct leadership, proved by deeds in great events and struggles.”
(The Crisis in the German Left Opposition, February 1931, Writings, 1930-31, p. 155)
In the book One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (May 1904), an interesting footnote appears partly in relation to Lenin's attempt to persuade his opponents in the Martov group to stay in the party at the 1903 Party Conference. He recalls a conversation with a delegate at the Conference. It is in stark contrast to my experience of the SWP who, at NUT Conference for example, will close down debate, not because "the question has been settled" but because they fear the arguments or are too lazy to engage in them. If there is to be a Leninism let it be based on the living, breathing agitational Lenin, not the lifeless relic preserved by Stalin that appears to haunt the entire left today.
“How oppressive the atmosphere is at our Congress!” he complained. “This bitter fighting, this agitation one against the other, this biting controversy, this uncomradely attitude! . . .” “What a splendid thing our Congress is!” I replied. “A free and open struggle. Opinions have been stated. The shades have been revealed. The groups have taken shape. Hands have been raised. A decision has been taken. A stage has been passed. Forward! That’s the stuff for me! That’s life! That’s not like the endless, tedious word-chopping of your intellectuals, which stops not because the question has been settled, but because they are too tired to talk any more....”
The comrade of the “Centre” stared at me in perplexity and shrugged his shoulders. We were talking different languages.