What happened to IS democracy?

Submitted by Matthew on 3 March, 2013 - 1:37

There is no doubt that IS was loosely democratic up to the mid 1970s. What happened to that democracy?

In 1970 there was a Commission on Factions. Its report denied that there could be such a thing as an ideological tendency: there could only be factions defined by short-term battles over short-term issues.

But the Trotskyist Tendency was a tendency. We were people from a different tradition who upheld what we thought to be the basic and long-term ideas of that tradition; we were not a faction in the narrow sense of fighting over each day-to-day issue, or fighting for control. We didn’t want to be.

So the Commission report proposed to wipe out the basis on which the Trotskyist Tendency existed. It was carried by the National Committee. That was the basic legislation under which the expulsion of the Trotskyist Tendency was carried through in 1971, and the drive by the leadership against IS democracy started.

Even then IS was quite democratic. We got 40% of the vote at the special conference called to expel us. A breakaway from our tendency, which developed into what became known as the Right Opposition, was placated into effectively condoning the expulsion by way of silence; without that we might possibly have defeated the leadership. It was still possible for members to contribute to an internal bulletin, and there were real debates.

But the conditions were changing rapidly. A machine of full-time organisers was being built up. We had no objection to that. We were in favour of the organisation having the resources and weight which full-time workers could give it. The problem was how, in what political culture, with what conception of what the organisation must do, that machine was being built up.

We wrote in the platform of the Trotskyist Tendency: “It is not a machine or hard ‘professional’ centre, as such, that is objectionable... but this machine, staffed by these specific people, with their specific attitudes, ideas, and record...”

The machine was built around the previously informal cultism of the old IS group, around Cliff. It saw its job as augmenting the organisation, using political ideas as instruments and selecting them by assessment of what would best attract attention and support; and it saw Cliff’s hunches and instincts as the main instrument of that assessment.

Only a year and a bit after our expulsion, the Right Opposition was expelled, in early 1973. Workers’ Fight had had two splits in a meeting in July 1971. One splinter dissipated quickly, but the other was in fact already a distinct tendency, which remained in IS after we were expelled. This was a grouping whose actual leader was Roy Tearse, who had been in the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s and out of politics since.

Cliff had a policy in 1968 of trying to resuscitate old members. He succeeded with Duncan Hallas, who was a very useful man from Cliff’s point of view, and was undoubtedly talented; and he failed with Tearse. But he got Tearse roused up enough to show an interest and start developing a group of disciples.

This opposition tendency included a wide variety of people — David Yaffe, Tony Polan, Matthew Warburton, and others. They had learned from our fate, and they would not proclaim a faction. To take advantage of the still-liberal regime, they published pamphlets of their own on particular subjects. They seemed to have reached an agreement with the leadership on that. They published a pamphlet on the Common Market, another on the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, another on racism. In practice they were a faction, or a tendency.

The new opposition called itself the Revolutionary Opposition, but was known by the IS leaders, and I think rightly, as the Right Opposition. They became quite numerous. The IS leaders, and anyone else with sense, could see that their claim not to be a faction was only pretence, but, oddly, quite a few people joined the opposition who really believed that it was not a faction.

They were right-wing because they had no confidence in the rank-and-file industrial militancy that was springing up all around them. They were very pessimistic. They said that the militants were running ahead of the masses, and that could be remedied only by first winning broad support for a worked-out Marxist perspective before there could be large working-class activity.

They were expelled in early 1973. About six people were expelled on the grounds that they had ideas “out of consonance with IS politics, programme, strategy and tactics”. The implication of expelling us as IS did was that certain socialist ideas were not reconcilable with membership of the group, but here the IS leaders spelled it out very clearly: you could be expelled because the leadership found your political differences too extensive.

That would progress quickly to mean: any serious differences at all are too big! By 1992, prominent people were being expelled for criticising one of Cliff’s strangest brainstorms: the call for a general strike to stop a new round of pit closures. The labour movement was in 1992 nowhere near moving to a general strike; and the SWP had opposed the call for a general strike even at the high point of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, when that call had some purchase in reality.

In 1973 about 80 people left IS to follow the named “Right Oppositionists” who had been expelled. Over the following years they scattered variously.

The secretary of the IS group then was Jim Higgins; but soon Higgins was in conflict with Cliff. A general conflict emerged, and probably the majority of the older IS cadre went into opposition. The headline issues were about trade-union activity, and especially a conflict involving the engineering fraction. One of the oddities was some of the engineers had been recruited to IS only after it had changed its line on Europe in 1971 to ingratiate itself more with established left-wing trade-unionists; now, only a few years later, they would leave the organisation.

In the abstract Cliff and the IS centre had some justice on their side. The trade-unionists should not decide the organisation’s policy according to their trade-union concerns. On the other hand, any leadership with any sense will listen to and learn from its trade-unionists in the field.

In essence, it was a conflict between the old IS method of functioning and what Cliff was now trying to do, which was, whether he saw it that way himself or not, to replace the SLL by adopting the SLL’s techniques and its central focus on “building the party” as the chief political answer.

A relatively protracted struggle followed in which great damage was done to the old democratic structures. The most rigid potential interpretation of the thinking in the report of the Commission on Factions was now pushed through. At the end of 1975 the leaders of what was called the “IS Opposition” were expelled, and many others left. From that point on, IS, and then SWP, had an increasingly dictatorial set of structures and an increasingly rigid machine. Within a few years, on the testimony of Steve Jefferys, a central full-timer, an SWP organiser could simply expel a member by decree. In the Healy organisation that power had been the prerogative of Healy; in Cliff’s version it became the prerogative of any full-time organiser.

There were further shifts in structures, but the essence of it was that now Cliff was in full control of the organisation. A series of people became national secretaries who had never previously been vocal or prominent or distinctive politically.

Why did all this happen? Because democracy, to be effective and lasting, is not something loose and informal. It requires structure. In IS at its most democratic, things were loose and unstructured. To a large extent the leadership was not under the control of the members. The members could debate and pass resolutions, but the leadership would then decide what was done and how it was done. It was a bit like conditions in a trade union where members can dissent freely enough and pass resolutions, but the people who make the final decisions find ways not to be bound by those resolutions.

Once the group lost its “extended family” character, and a formal organisational structure was introduced, the alternatives were either that Cliff’s hunches and improvisations would often be thwarted, or that the structure be shaped to allow for a formal and regular enforcement of whatever came out of Cliff by way of the Central Committee, with little or no debate outside the CC. The SWP leaders chose the second course, and after 1971 imposed it as an ever-tightening noose around the neck of the organisation.

After the “downturn”

How did later political turns by the SWP, such as its lurch after 1987 towards supporting almost any force which came into conflict with the USA, happen?

It is beyond the scope of this supplement to analyse each and every turn. A fundamental fact, however, is that the drastic political turns were possible only because the regime was what it was. Cliff could do things like he did in 1992.

In that year the Tory government proposed to close 31 out of the remaining 50 coal mines left in the country. There was a great upsurge of indignation. Suddenly, the SWP, which had been talking about a downturn, printed thousands of posters and placards calling for a general strike. It became their slogan for a brief period when there were two big demonstrations, one on a Wednesday and another the following Sunday. The SWP expelled people for disagreeing with the turn. Such was the regime.

There was a loss of political consciousness, a wholesale conversion to a method of chasing hunches and inspirations which would attract (or it was hoped would attract) attention and support. Then after each turn the members would be told that only “sectarians” chewed over past differences, and it was time to lurch in another direction.

There was a depoliticisation, an erosion of political ideas beyond the level of asserting the need for socialism, and therefore the need to build “the party” and to deploy whatever ideas would help to build “the party”.

I never really liked the old IS people, as types. Their whole approach to politics was very limited. Someone like Jim Higgins can go on lamenting until his death many years later the fact that he left his job as a post office engineer to become national secretary of IS and was then booted out: that sums up a certain spirit, and it’s not a revolutionary spirit. But these people were relatively independent-minded and well-educated.

After the mid-1970s Cliff had got rid of nearly all of them. Mutatis mutandis, and keeping all things in proportion, it was a bit like Stalin’s purge of all the factions, including his own, in the mid 1930s. It left Cliff with national secretaries who had no independent political stature. There was a general decline of the political level.

The focus on “building the party”, and its use as a substitute for real political answers in the real world, inevitably produced a depoliticisation of the membership. The approach was a straight steal from the Healyites in the middle and late 1960s.

There was a progressive selection and reselection of membershipand of second-rank leaders. A lot of people dropped out. Some old-stagers stayed and adapted. The young people were miseducated into the idea that “the party” as such is an answer to specific political questions and that the internal life of the party must be the peace of the graveyard.

The depoliticisation made all the changes possible. Cliff’s personal evolution you can only guess at. Until the middle 1960s he was heavily oriented to academic-type productions, while still being politically active. I think the last such production was the 1964 edition of the Russia book.

Cliff then abandoned all that and focused on politics. What then happened was shaped, I think, by Cliff’s background. He had the experience of the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s, when it was already seriously degenerated; and before that he had, I think, been linked to the Lovestone group.

Even the fetishism of “building the party” also comes, oddly, from the ILP. IS in the 1960s systematically took over all the stock-in-trade of the ILP, on issues like Luxemburgism and industrial unionism. And, though the ILP was a loose organisation, it had in its own way made a fetish of the party.

The ILP didn’t really care what your politics were, as long as you subscribed to “the party”, the ILP. IS and the SWP took over the same approach. It added the proviso that — as one local SWP organiser, recruiting a former member of AWL, put it — you could disagree on, say, the Middle East so long as you didn’t express your disagreement in SWP
branch meetings and thus “confuse” other members.

At the end of the day, Cliff believed in some vague socialism, and then in himself — his own instinct and his own hunches, informed by the political culture he’d been formed in.

What is the revolutionary party?

Throughout, since the early 1970s, the SWP or IS leaders’ final reply to all criticism has been the need to “build the party”, and the assertion that the gambits, methods, and policies which they propose are necessary to “build the party”.

In the latest dispute, Alex Callinicos’s backstop response to oppositionists within the SWP has been not to explore the merits or demerits of their arguments, but to assert that the SWP’s methods are a distillation of forty years’ successful work to “build the party”, and that if the SWP adopted the opposition’s ideas then it would allegedly be “smaller and weaker”.

In revulsion against such arguments, some left-wing critics of the SWP, and probably some people within the SWP, come to deny outright the idea of building a revolutionary party, and to argue that the struggle for socialism does better with only loose coalitions and networks.

But what is a revolutionary party?

The best answer to the question, what is a revolutionary party?, is another question: what is a revolutionary party for? What does it do? The passage quoted at the start of this supplement, from Plekhanov, stated the guiding idea of the Bolshevik party: “the new Socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of class consciousness among the proletariat”.

If Plekhanov’s definition, and Lenin’s, and Trotsky’s, is correct, then many other things flow. The revolutionary socialists comment on events, propagandise, agitate. All that must be truthful, because otherwise the workers will not learn from it what reality is and how things function. It will not promote the growth of class consciousness.

The commentary, propaganda, and agitation cannot be manipulative, a matter of saying whatever will best attract attention or support. We must tell the truth. It is no accident that this thought was central to Trotsky’s summaries of principles in the 1930s, and it wasn’t only the Stalinists he was addressing.

In order to do the work of promoting class consciousness, the revolutionary party has to be so organised that it is clear politically, and it learns from events. The whole party must be able to learn from experience and then spread the knowledge into the broader working class. It can’t do that if there is a structure inside the party like that of the Catholic Church, with a pope or a college of cardinals laying down the line and then using whatever arguments they can think of to back it up — yet the use of any argument to gain its current point is one of the dominant traits of the SWP.

The revolutionary party must be structured democratically, as the Bolshevik party was. Centralism is in action. Given unity in action, there can be as much discussion as necessary. Without discussion in the ranks — honest discussion, which allows more than one viewpoint — it is not possible to train an educated membership.

If “building the party” becomes the all-saving, all-explaining, all-defining idea in politics, then the membership becomes more or less depoliticised. To shout “build the party” as the answer to political questions now is only another way of saying: leave it until later.

The cry “build the revolutionary party” expresses a yearning for a condition of completeness — a condition where the working class is militant and socialistically conscious. It is a yearning for a general change in conditions which cannot be brought about at will, translated into something which can in theory be brought about at will, namely building the organisation.

But if the organisation is healthy, its role is to prepare the working class and educate the working class. You cannot do that with an organisation structured like the Catholic Church. That is not a revolutionary party, whatever size it has, and whatever implantation it has.

The early Christians believed that the second coming of Christ and a great transformation of our world would come soon. It didn’t happen. Then the yearning for the Kingdom of Heaven mutated into, or was substituted for by, building up the structure, the influence, the wealth of the Church, and its domination in every walk of life. Something similar has happened in the focus of the SWP and others on “building the revolutionary party”.

I don’t argue against the practical focus on building a revolutionary party in day-to-day work. That has to be central. I argue against the fetishisation of the idea of “building the party” as an answer to all political questions. It is a fetishisation because the building of a revolutionary party is only part of a broader process, and cannot be abstracted as an answer in and of itself to the problems or delays of that process.

If the party mistakes its function, if it has a wrong idea of its purpose, then it will not do what it might do to prepare the conditions in which a revolutionary party can lead the working class. The fetishisation of “building the party”, and the subordination to it of concern for truth and clarity, is not a harmless aberration. It is poisonous.

Suppose the SWP took power. For that to be even possiblewe would have to have tremendous transformations in the working class; but leave that aside. If a group like the SWP took power and functioned in the state as it has functioned for three decades in its own affairs, then we would have, at the very least, an authoritarian state, not any sort of democratic workers’ state.

The possibility of the SWP actually taking power is virtually nil. But if we got anywhere near that, the group would have to decide to impose its structures, as they are now, on society; or it would have to adapt to the needs of a democratic working-class movement struggling for revolution. And if it adapted, then the SWP (as it is) would begin to fall apart; it would not be able to do the things that the people who want a monolithic party want it to do.

In history there have been situations where the lack of a revolutionary party meant the destruction of tremendous working-class possibilities. But that fact does not justify ignoring the whole picture of which the party has to be part. Building a party, building an organisation that can intervene, is centrally important. But it is important within a cluster of other important considerations.

The party has no interests apart from the working class, as the Communist Manifesto says. The party is guided by the rhythm and logic of the class struggle, as the fundamental programme of the Fourth International says. And the party tells the truth, even very bitter truths.

Unless “building the party” is part of that necessary complex of ideas, then it is not a socialist party being built, but, however big it is, a cult and a sect.

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