The SWP crisis: politics without oxygen

At the annual conference of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, the largest of the would-be Trotskyist groups in Britain) on 4-6 January, the Central Committee was almost defeated in a vote on whether to endorse its handling of an investigation into allegations of serious misconduct against a prominent member.


This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.

We do not feel it is appropriate to comment further on that here. The following article was written before those details became public, in response to the debate on questions of party democracy and organisation prior to the conference, during the course of which two opposition factions (the Democratic Opposition and the Democratic Centralist Faction) were formed, and four SWP members sympathetic to the Democratic Opposition expelled.

The question of party democracy isn’t just a technical question of the best way to conduct a discussion. It is a political question related to how class struggle happens and how a revolution can be made. In our view, the SWP has drifted into a concept in which a revolutionary organisation is valued mainly as a machine and measured by its ability to count recruits and issue slogans which "fit the mood", not by its contribution to enlightenment, education, and clarification in the labour movement.

In the political culture of the SWP over many years, “rousing the tired, the demoralised and the half-convinced into action” has become mixed up with “insisting that the CC's latest analysis and latest initiative is 100% right”.

But these aren't the same. In the SWP, any attempt to challenge or correct the CC's analysis of a situation, or to criticise a new initiative, necessarily runs up against the SWP rule which insists on unanimity from the full-timers and CC. Circulating critical notes outside of one's branch is prohibited. A culture is promoted of enforced, official, permanent optimism - or pretend-optimism.

This permanent official optimism, interspersed with bouts of equally compulsory official pessimism, makes it hard to assess reality. For the SWP, the government is always “weak”, the public mood is always “angry”. Events in Egypt are always "the revolution", even when thugs of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood are killing, beating, and kidnapping socialists.

This distorted picture of the world results in slogans which can’t educate. The SWP call “all out, stay out” (for 30 November 2011) sounded very radical, but it could not be seriously argued or debated. The SWP's call for a “general strike” essentially called on activists to reinterpret the union bureaucrats' programme of one-day strikes as something more radical than it was.

Even assessing the success or failure of SWP initiatives is stymied. The SWP described the 17 November Unite the Resistance rally as a big success (as it almost always describes the events of all its carefully controlled fronts). But the reported attendance was inflated, and anyway much smaller than the SWP’s paper membership. Confusing criticism with “nay-saying” and revolutionary discipline with compulsory pretend-optimism obstructs honest accounting.

The SWP has a rule that factions can only exist in a short period before its annual conference. They must disband after conference.

That is effectively a ban on debate. The only way to resolve an important political disagreement is to debate the politics fully.

The SWP rules are often justified by appeals to the history of the Bolshevik Party. SWP leaders argue that the rules are necessary for the SWP's ability to act decisively. Supporters of the CC majority in this latest fight have argued that too much freedom of criticism and debate would turn a party into a mere debating club.

But the internal regime of the Bolshevik party was far more open than the SWP of today – and more open than the regime which the Democratic Opposition proposed.

The Democratic Opposition called for an end to the rule whereby CC members must pretend unanimity to the rest of the party regarding CC decisions.

The practice of artificial displays of public unanimity is corrosive. It corrodes a revolutionary's ardour for the truth, as it obliges activists to pretend to hold views other than their own. It corrodes debate. Positions in discussions cease to be open to being modified in argument, and become mandated formulas. Real debate happens only privately, or in code – that is, in ways which cannot clarify.

To present only conclusions, and not the debates which produced them, is undemocratic. As Trotsky put it: "The foundation of party democracy is timely and complete information, available to all members of the organisation and covering all the important questions of their life and struggle".

In order for militants to be able to understand, master, use, teach – or challenge – an idea, it is necessary to see the debate which produced it. In order for a change in position to be assimilated and debated, rather than merely obeyed, the full discussion must be seen.

The demand for an end to artificial unanimity is the demand for an active, thinking party where members criticise and mutually educate one another, and appraise reality fairly, rather than one in which pronouncements are handed out to a passive membership.

For the Bolsheviks, open criticism was as fundamental as disciplined (and informed) unity in action. In March 1918, for example, “Left Communists” led by Bukharin were demanding a “revolutionary war” against Germany. A party congress was held as German troops were overrunning huge territories and counter-revolutionaries were waging civil war against the fragile workers' state.

“Left Communists” said they would refuse to serve on the Central Committee because of their disagreement. Lenin wrote a resolution: “The Congress declares that everyone can and should deny his responsibility for any step taken by the Central Committee, if he does not agree with it, by means of a declaration to that effect but not by leaving the Central Committee”.

The “Left Communist” faction set up a daily newspaper, Kommunist, to attack the leadership. They were not expelled. They were persuaded to join the Central Committee, and eventually defeated in debate.

Ideas can only be dealt with and improved rationally through full, open debate. Artificial displays of unanimity clarify nothing.

A revolutionary organisation should publicly present its big internal debates on policy, and not merely its conclusions, to the workers' movement and the left. A relationship between the revolutionary organisation and the workers and youth who join in activity with it day-to-day in which those workers are not informed about the organisation's discussions but instead are only given pre-processed conclusions, is a Stalinist distortion, not a Marxist approach.

The same name-calling and administrative exclusions that the CC uses against internal dissent are used to wall off the party from meaningful dialogue with other groups on the socialist left.

The SWP should understand that there is nothing anti-Leninist in an activist saying to non-members, “The majority of the organisation thinks X because Y, and we are doing X in a disciplined way, but I personally think B because C”.

Of course, some information sometimes needs to be kept confidential; and it is important that debates be structured, that disagreements be written and presented in a clear, formal way. But SWP rules go far beyond that.

Lenin wrote in 1906: “Criticism within the limits of the principles of the Party Programme must be quite free… not only at Party meetings, but also at public meetings. Such criticism, or such 'agitation' (for criticism is inseparable from agitation) cannot be prohibited…

“Let us take an example. The Congress decided that the Party should take part in the Duma elections… 'Criticism' of the decision to take part in the elections [cannot] be tolerated during this period, for it would in fact jeopardise success in the election campaign. Before elections have been announced, however, Party members everywhere have a perfect right to criticise the decision to take part in elections. Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party.”

Full understanding, education and explanation was more important for Lenin than formalities of “discipline” or yearnings for the appearance of public unanimity. The Bolsheviks sometimes had to make quick and drastic political turns decided at short notice by the leadership; but they knew the leadership could gain the authority to manage that only through educating and discussing as thoroughly as possible, and being tested in practice, not just by laying down rules.

At every turn, for the Bolsheviks, ideas came before any other consideration. They understood that what was necessary to the liberation of the working class was its political self-education. The building of a revolutionary party was the most important means to this end – but it was still only a means. A party which sees its own parade-ground orderliness as more important than ideas is a party that sees its own machine as more important than politics, ideas and truth-telling. Political discussion, clarification and education has to be an open, rowdy process, where every idea is probed and criticised from all sides.

In 1966, James Cannon, a founder of American Trotskyism, wrote on the question of expelling an old comrade, Arne Swabeck, who had developed far-out Maoist views and was raising hell in the party before a conference in an undisciplined fashion. Cannon reacted strongly against the suggestion that Swabeck be expelled before conference:

“Probably the hardest lesson I had to learn from Trotsky, after ten years of bad schooling through the Communist Party faction fights, was to let organisational questions wait until the political questions at issue were fully clarified, not only in the National Committee but also in the ranks of the party...

“From that point of view, in my opinion, the impending plenum should be conceived of as a school for the education and clarification of the party on the political issues involved in the new disputes...

“This aim will be best served if the attacks and criticisms are answered point by point in an atmosphere free from poisonous personal recriminations and venomous threats of organisation discipline. Our young comrades need above all to learn; and this is the best, in fact the only way, for them to learn what they need to know...

“Trotsky insisted from the beginning that all proposals, or even talk or threats, of disciplinary action be left aside until the political disputes were clarified and settled”.

A leadership which expels first and deals with politics later is a leadership which does not believe that the membership (or anybody else) needs particularly to learn – simply to obey. Or, at least, it is a leadership which believes that learning can only take place in controlled conditions, with chopped-up, pre-prepared lessons. It is a leadership which does not know, or care, whether its politics can really stand the tests of the real world.

Cannon’s point here is that political disagreements can’t be dealt with by administrative means: they have to run their course. So, while “permanent factions” are undesirable, the political effects of trying to shut down debate by winding factions up administratively are much, much worse.

What is at issue is a struggle against a version of “democratic centralism” in which administrative "discipline" comes first. But in our view, and by the standards of the Bolshevik political tradition, politics and telling the truth have got to come first.

The SWP leadership’s vision of a revolutionary party, ultimately, is of something which needs simply to be large enough and willing to be switched quickly by the leadership in one direction or another.

The Bolsheviks’ vision was different. They understood that where the bourgeoisie was able to develop its own system of education, and gradually capture more and more of the means of production, the working class is not. The working class is a slave class right up until the moment where it seizes power. It must educate itself and fit itself to become a ruling class consciously – it cannot blunder into power on the shoulders of another class, as the bourgeoisie was able to do.

A revolutionary party is the key element in the self-education of the working class. Education and clarification must come first. Simple command and discipline, or a policy solely based on the desire to recruit, cannot aid that education. A turn to democracy, openness and honest accounting in the tradition of the Bolsheviks is what we need.

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