Friday, March 22, 2013

Is The SWP A Dead Duck: Part 2

It isn’t only in the nations, like the former USSR, that bureaucracy can use its control of wealth and power to defeat grassroots challengers. What happened with the rise of Stalinism was an historically profound human tragedy. But the process of bureaucracy developing independence from its original base can occur on a much smaller scale and this holds lessons for revolutionaries grappling with events in the SWP.

In the case of the US-SWP it is likely that the material wealth of the party machine – benefiting from copyrights on Trotsky’s works, the bequeathments of generations of members, et al - made the correction of political errors more or less impossible as the leadership could simply dispense with the membership without harming their own material position. I’ve seen some claim that the British SWP is in a similar position with ample resources to survive without the membership. I’ve not done a forensic audit of the party’s finances but certainly it was the case a number of years ago that the party had to sell off its printing press in order to cover debts (at least that was the claim at the time and I haven’t seen any argument that counters that). And while the apparatus of full-timers has been estimated by Soviet Goon Boy at 3-5 percent of the membership this is nothing compared to the 20 percent of the US-SWP membership who were fulltimers. That isn’t to underestimate the impact of the apparatus but to keep it in perspective.

Nonetheless, while the impact of the SWP (UK) apparatus has clearly had an impact on the democratic functioning of the party, it is important to keep in mind that the question of bureaucracy and democracy must also be understood culturally. That is, we can’t simply reduce the victory of bureaucracy to an accounting problem and once a certain threshold has been crossed a party is lost to its original cause. This cuts both ways, of course. The prolonged practice of substitutionism in the SWP, just as in a trade union, has not only affected the consciousness of the party machine and the leadership. A significant portion of the membership also comes to view the machine as the party and seeks to protect it, sometimes to the exclusion of principle as in the present crisis. However, the culture and politics of an organization can also provide energy and a cadre who can resist bureaucratism even when that bureaucracy can in theory dispense materially with the troublesome membership. That is, it can set at least a temporary limit to how far the bureaucracy itself is willing to go. For instance, the CC of the SWP may be able to sustain the present machinery for years or decades with a much-reduced membership. But it may not yet have become conscious of this fact and to have internalized it as an acceptable “sacrifice” to “save the party.” Like the US-SWP it may well end up in this position but it requires a contested, crisis-ridden process of pushing the boundaries, finding new levels of acceptable “sacrifices” even after the material conditions have been met to survive without the bulk of the members.

In terms of the members a similar process of erratic and partial consciousness can also develop. It is indubitable that while the Rees-German leadership of the party were delivering real results in the outside world, the bulk of the cadre of the party were willing to accept “excesses” and arrogance from the leadership and their fulltime apparatus. But as the party has entered into a series of crises (four splits in five years) this has undermined the prestige of the leadership and its methods, step by step through, to use Trotsky’s formula, a series of progressive approximations. With the formation of the In Defense Of Our Party Faction we see that a significant portion of the cadre and membership of the organization, perhaps approaching a majority, have matured a much more thoroughgoing critique of the methods of the leadership. Given a certain level of confidence by the membership and a crisis of confidence within the leadership this can lead to the defeat of the bureaucracy even when it could theoretically have dispensed with a large portion of the members.

That reason alone explains why it is a tragedy that the comrades around the so-called Sino-Seymourite axis, aka the Democratic Renewal Platform (DRP), have split from the party. While I don’t agree with all their formulations, it was their courage to stand up in the face of a bureaucratic onslaught of lies and calumny that pushed the mainstream of the party into revolt. Their departure – engineered by the CC and the apparatus with the utmost vigour, including open threats and dark whispers about MI5 agents and more – likely weakened, at least temporarily, the struggle against the party bureaucracy. Their departure is, of course, understandable and I don’t wish to malign the comrades for feeling that the space inside the party had closed but I respectfully disagree. It is worth noting that the departure of comrades in other parts of the Tendency deserves less sympathy. There was the resignation of the Serbian section, on the one hand, which seemed like it was a long time coming and just needed this crisis as an excuse. And I have today seen a resignation letter from a handful of IS Canada members that is both similar to the Serbians in using the present crisis as an excuse to leave, as well as being unimpressive for other reasons. For one, they made only one attempt to win the membership to their perspective at the recent convention when most would have heard about the whole farrago for the very first time. Having made that half-hearted attempt, they then didn’t try to continue the argument even though the IS made no move to silence them through either formal or informal channels (Paul K’s critique on his personal blog was linked to in the Internal Bulletin, for instance). This isn’t the action of a principled opposition but rather a clique with contempt for the rest of the membership who aren’t part of their in-group. If my view contains a certain level of vitriol it is because, unlike the DRP, they never demonstrated a concern to fight to win a better IST and have carelessly damaged the struggle to achieve that goal for their own personal prestige.* Ironically, part of the problem with bureaucracy is that its increasingly narrow membership leads it to clique methods – making decisions without consulting the membership and only valuing the opinions of the in-group. Not a good omen in a group who want to form a more accountable alternative to the present set-up.

But I digress.

Tragedy or not, the DRP have left the building with obvious justification. However, there are still hundreds of SWP members who remain committed to the party and who have now been awoken to the need to challenge the present operation of the party machinery and its leadership. The leadership may have won a rigged conference and wound up the loyalist members – who will, in the majority, be members who are good socialists, activists and trade unionists but who accepted the leadership’s claims that the party was under threat – but they can’t be in the branches and fractions and coalitions week in and week out. In Glasgow somewhere around 40 percent of members at the aggregate voted for the faction, for instance. Even the party fulltimers can’t be everywhere all the time, nor will they all even be utterly loyalist or impervious to influence. Many will have simply kept their heads down in fear of their jobs – having seen the employment shake-up at head office. And the loyalists and factionists will have to face each other in the light of day, outside of the manufactured crisis (as opposed to the real one) and together grapple with the problems of building the struggle and the party after this latest debacle. Between now and the next conference is a long time in which lies and distortions can be unwound by calm argument and the failings of the leadership can be exposed by their own illogic. But even without a continuing molecular degeneration of the culture of hand-raising and auto-support for the CC, the already-awakened members, including cadre with decades of experience and prestige within the party and movements, will be less likely to accept future claims by the leadership without question. The CC may have won a rigged conference but it will now have to deliver before the open eyes of the membership.

Does this mean that this crisis presages a renaissance in the SWP and its internal democratic culture. Not at all. If anything the dice are probably stacked against such an outcome – barring a major explosion of struggle in Britain (and even then…). But it does mean that the parrot still has life and could for some time – and I don’t mean the zombie life of the US-SWP. The fight for democracy and against bureaucracy isn’t a one-off. One doesn’t undo a process that has developed practices, ideological justifications and structures over an entire generation (it’s worth noting that nobody ever expected that it would take so long – the Bolsheviks, after all, only existed for less than 15 years before they led a revolution, the SWP has been around for, what, 40 years?). What has changed is that the process is unlikely to continue to be as one-sided as it has in the past. And future splits, where victory isn’t possible, are likely to be more conscious than past ones where the apparats of yesteryear repudiate nothing and only bemoan their own maltreatment, perhaps with a veneer of self-serving political differentiation, like some pathetic repetition of the Lovestoneites (for all you sectarian geeks). The future has yet to be written.

But what will be required to revitalize the SWP as a vital, revolutionary organization? It may be a cop-out but I’m not really in a position to make that judgment, nor is there one road, in my opinion. But, since I’ve come this far I might as well stick my nose in and offer my own thoughts on what a democratic renewal process might look like. I think, as I’ve stated before, that the tradition of electing the CC by slate in order to provide stability has been demonstrated to be ineffective and obsolete. A little constructive instability in the leadership, as a result of democratic pressure, is in order. Likely the fulltime apparatus ought to be examined seriously by a committee of lay members and a (substantially) new leadership with an eye to pruning it back, devolving more responsibility on the membership, etc. Those organizers who remain in districts ought to be elected from the membership themselves (hell, if a labour lawyer friend of mine could be elected by a council of shop floor leaders at the union where he works, including voting on his salary, surely a revolutionary party can democratically elect their organizers). This will reverse some of the one-way pressure from above and help to empower the members. It’s clear that there also needs to be measures put in place to involve the membership in more detailed strategic and tactical discussions, rather than simply rubber-stamping extremely general and platitudinous “perspectives” that allow the leadership a totally free hand to set up new national united fronts – even where these are out of synch with what is needed. Bringing in membership input might have helped to overcome, for instance, the existence of multiple, nearly indistinguishable, national anti-austerity coalitions. It almost certainly would have prevented the Respect debacle. And it will shatter the model of secrecy – keeping the membership in the dark as to debates amongst the official leadership. Speaking of secrecy, it ought to be obvious that the party needs to come to grips with the interweb. Paranoia and bureaucratic clampdowns just won’t cut it when someone can record conference discussions with a smartphone and post the minutes a few hours later. It won’t be long until someone live-streams the conference with a looxcie camera clipped to their hat. Better that the party drive forward the power of information dissemination than retreating inwards as though you can resist horseless carriages, I mean, the internet. There are other ideas that come to mind – and many that I haven’t considered – but those are some of the larger ones. Were I an optimist I’d suggest that from this disaster something better might be born. It so happens that I’m not an optimist but I’m not such a curmudgeon that I don’t think it’s possible. The next couple of years will tell which way things go, I hope the comrades who remain in the party have the courage for the long haul.

*Mea culpa: I recently left the IS though I haven’t published a “resignation letter” and I am not counseling members to resign or to set up another tiny socialist sect or to wreck the organization I left behind. If that makes me a dilettante, I accept that. This series has been the contribution I am able/willing to make given my current life priorities. C’est la vie. You may now return to your regularly scheduled faction fight. :)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is The SWP A Dead Duck: Part 1

I’ve come across more than a few obituaries for the SWP in the last week or so, particularly since a number of people split from the party and are now forming the IS Network. This article on the Left Unity website, for instance, starts with the following statement:

“The SWP – one of the most successful organising forces on the British left over the last few decades – is close to death...”

But is the SWP really going the way of Monty Python’s parrot?

It does seem clear that the SWP has suffered significant damage as a result of the present crisis arising from the botched (to understate it) handling of a rape allegation against a senior party member. The leadership exacerbated their error by using bureaucratic suppression of internal criticism to try and “draw a line under” the unfolding disaster. The impact will likely be far larger than the actual loss of members, which may be in the order of a couple of hundred, perhaps less. That’s a significant amount but still may be only ten percent of active members.

However, the credibility of the party, its ability to be effective, to be a part of the wider left and workers movement, to initiate campaigns, etc. may well have suffered more profoundly. A women’s conference for the large, UK public sector union UNISON, recently wound up in loud denunciations of the SWPs record on women’s oppression, particularly around the alleged rape issue, for instance. Even where union members and left activists may be friendly with individual SWPers and with branches and districts, the fear of unsympathetic union leaders, local councilors and political opponents using this debacle as a hammer against a campaign or rank and file initiative may dissuade people from involving the SWP. I’ve read that UNITE General Secretary Len McCluskey, for instance, has attacked his left wing challenger, Jerry Hicks, by tying him to the “discredited SWP.” How widespread this phenomenon will become and the depth of its impact has yet to be seen. But from the continuing revelations it is clear that this crisis hasn’t run its course. Only in the minds of bureaucrats do “special conferences” draw a line under crises that have a life of their own, like voting to end a recession.

But my guess is that this moment will ultimately pass in a shorter or longer period of time. After all, look at the vampire-like resurrection of the Labour Party throughout its history. The SWP may have botched a rape allegation but they didn’t drop bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan that killed tens of thousands of women, children and civilian men. Ditto the record of Labour Councillors implementing Tory cuts that predominantly impact the most vulnerable and oppressed. Yet, still the Labour Party wins back voters and activists and retains significant support in the unions. It’s also worth adding that the shocked outrage of some Labour Party activists is, shall we say, a bit rich. When your party stops killing and impoverishing women by the trainload you’ll have a firmer leg to stand on in the judgment of the failings of others. Which is not to say that concerns about this whole debacle are misplaced. It is a singular failure of the leadership to have ceded the high ground on women’s liberation by dealing so badly with the claim and, obviously, the claimant. The resolution passed at special conference to find ways to better guarantee “confidentiality” will have given few women confidence that the leadership is concerned with dealing better with rape and sexual harassment claims in the future – as opposed to better covering up short-comings in the process.

But if the anathematization of the SWP is a passing phase from which they will recover, more serious, to my mind, is that this present crisis may deepen and accelerate the process of internal degeneration past the point of no return. We’ve seen this happen before in revolutionary organizations, of course. As Soviet Goon Boy (SGB) aptly puts it: “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 ├╝ber-Stalinist propaganda.” While perhaps SGB is being (slightly) unkind with the membership figures, it seems clear that, In some ways, the degeneration of the US SWP can be summed up as a process in which the bureaucracy accrued enough money that it no longer needed the membership, which could be occasionally troublesome, demand accountability, question judgment, etc. They had the material resources to become fully independent of (and dissolve) the membership.

But the US SWP is not just a tale of degeneration. It is also a tale of resurrection. By the end of the 1930s the US-SWP was also an impressive organization. James Cannon had not only held together a core group of cadre against the onslaught of the Depression and US Stalinism – the CPUSA were quite large and very aggressive about dealing with “Trotsky-Fascists”, and Cannon’s group often had to get some of his former comrades in the IWW to defend their meetings from CPUSA attacks. They had led important strikes, like the Minneapolis “Teamster Rebellion” in 1934, and they had an organization pushing 1500 iirc and perhaps more, including some key worker militants. But their slavish adhering to the prognostications of Trotsky that World War Two could only end with a collapse of capitalism or the destruction of the USSR, led them into political confusion when neither happened. That disorientation and the brutal effects of McCarthyism had a devastating impact on the organization, along with Cannon’s propensity to generate splits. More than one of those splits predicted the end of the US-SWP far sooner than it actually happened. And as the quote above indicates, the organization did make a “return from the grave” in the upsurge of struggles of the 1960s. As Yogi Berra famously said: “it ain’t over till it’s over.” It is safe to say, however, that for the US-SWP, except as a business concern, it is definitely over.

The British SWP has, of course, also come back from difficult times, growing significantly in the early 90s after the doldrums of the 80s and playing an important, high profile role in important campaigns, especially the Stop the War Coalition in the first decade of the new century. And, I would argue, it has better politics, having consciously broken with the schematism of the early Trotskyists in order to re-emphasize socialism from below, self-activity of workers, etc. That, after all, is the real significance of the theories of state capitalism and deflected permanent revolution – only workers themselves can create socialism, full stop. Not that this immunizes the party against the development of bureaucratic practices. Not even the best program – as the Bolsheviks discovered – escapes the imperatives and pressures of actual, lived history.

Nonetheless, while program and orientation are no guarantee, it is reasonable to look to the theory of an organization or tendency to try to forensically unearth the seed that would blossom into later degeneration, given the proper circumstances. I would argue that In some ways the counter to the “tonic” of socialism from below came from Cliff’s Lenin Volume 1. I suppose I respectfully disagree on this count with SGB, who argued that Cliff didn’t “attempt to theoretically justify an elitist party bureaucracy.” While, on the one hand, he does emphasize the conjunctural, context-specific nature of Lenin’s conception of the party, there is a certain valorization of “What Is To Be Done?” and Lenin’s admonition that party members ought to be professional revolutionaries. I remember this during the clique fight in the Canadian IS in 1994 – Cliff’s letter specifically spoke of what differentiated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks as being the Bolsheviks emphasis on committed party activism. He also specifically pushed for us to hire full-timers. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said before, the Canadian IS at the time was more like a Marxist coffee klatch – or rather two, warring klatches – and desperately needed some “objective” measures of leadership, rather than a recurring popularity contest. But you can see how, in the context of a decline in activity by the working class and even the membership, this could provide the theoretical foundation to justify the advance of bureaucratic practices – and was perhaps itself the product of the rise of those practices.

If I remember my Lenin he was not so much valorizing the party machine over the activity of the masses. He was, rather, bemoaning the fact that revolutionaries were constantly getting busted and sent into exile. If they were going to succeed they needed to get more serious and professional so that Marxist circles lasted more than a week or two. This was about survival against very concrete, material repressive measures. It wasn’t primarily an argument about substituting an unaccountable bureaucracy for the masses. Or, rather, insofar as it did contain substitution this was the result of Lenin grappling with a problem that hadn’t been grappled with before and thus reaching a conclusion that was only partly true. His argument about “socialism coming from without” wasn’t the core argument and was, rather, his justification for why the party needed to maintain its integrity and resist police infiltration. Given the tumultuous nature of struggle in Russia in the early years of the century, the one-sidedness of his conception was corrected by the revolution of 1905. I think Cliff overplays the “tactical” nature of Lenin’s changing formulations and underemphasizes the fact that he was learning on the fly how to structure a revolutionary movement under particular conditions, which required refinements over time. That conflation of tactics vs refinements could lead to solutions that emphasized the apparatus of the party as a solution to the retreat of the class. And this solution never gets corrected, or refined, not only because it is based on a wrong argument but because the struggle never rises to force a correction. For certain Lenin was later much less concerned with questions of organization until the revolution was in retreat and he was forced to try and use organizational mechanisms to solve political problems – because the working class was no longer playing as active a role in the country as it had in 1917. Even the famous 21 conditions of the Communist International has to be understood as a conjunctural process of trying to overnight transform the habits and machinery of social democratic parties that had broken ideologically but which contained a sprawling reformist machinery in the form of bureaucratic trade union officials, newspapers that were little different from the bourgeois press, parliamentary MPs who were used to hobnobbing with parliamentary colleagues in Tory parties, etc.

The point of this detour through “What Is To Be Done?” and the Comintern is three-fold. 1) Relatively small tactical errors can lead to big problems if not corrected. 2) Damaged socialist organizations can come back from even very deep crises. And, 3), they can come back in ways that are simply temporary reprieves that are hostages to fortune unless problems described in 1) are dealt with (never mind larger strategic problems, as I believe the US SWP had). This last problem is, of course, tied up with the level of struggle.

Friday, March 15, 2013

SWP Bureaucracy & The IST: Part 2

The debate with the US ISO remains a source of much controversy, having ended with the biggest split from the Tendency to date. This makes it worth exploration and, I believe, it is an example of the way in which the SWP’s growing bureaucracy negatively impacted the IST. However, both of the dominant narratives of the events leading up to the ISOs expulsion are, in my view, one sided. The main IST narrative is that there was a debate and the ISO responded by intervening in a crisis in the Greek group, engineering or giving credence to a damaging split. The ISO view is that they were victimized by the haughty Brits (Ahmed S once said, more or less, that “someone should tell Callinicos that America is no longer a British colony”) and expelled for refusing to submit to direction from London. The truth is more complicated than that, in my view.

The ISO were the favourite children of Tony Cliff, and Ahmed S was the favourite son. His love for them was a bit of an eye-roller to us to be honest. And it meant that the ISO’s practice was never challenged. They were bringing IST politics into the heart of the beast and, at least in the English-speaking world, they were the second largest group. No doubt these things were to be lauded and their leadership were charming and smart. As our “big sister” next door we had a close relationship with them and always sent people to their version of Marxism in Chicago. When we had a crisis at our 1994 convention – the cage match of the cliques – Ahmed and Sharon came up to try and prevent a damaging split. But there were significant differences of approach to campaigns and struggles that were worth debating. We had debated the Americans over the question of NAFTA (the continent-wide free trade agreement) in which we opposed NAFTA and they abstained with an abstract (in my view) plague on both your houses attitude given the nationalism of much of the opposition. Earlier, the Canadians had gotten an earful from the Brits for abstaining in the constitutional debates going on around Meech Lake – before I was a member – and the organization’s position had changed as a result. The ISO didn’t get an earful over their NAFTA position.

So, it must have been a shock after so many years on a pedestal to be called out on their orientation beginning with NATOs war against Serbia in 1999. We also disagreed with the ISO who pushed for two slogans in the anti-war movement: no to NATO and self-determination for Kosovo. Our view was that the second slogan was a shibboleth that would be an obstacle to the participation of Serbians who still clung to some nationalist ideas but who were moving towards anti-imperialism. Secondly, we felt like it was a hostage to fortune to raise the slogan under which NATO was attacking Serbia. As the debate over the war blended into the debate around the significance of the WTO protests in Seattle, it got uglier. In sum, we felt that the Brits were right – the ISO were being sectarian and abstentionist towards the emerging anti-globalization/anti-capitalist movement. But the missives that were fired at the Americans from across the water were haughty, arrogant and condescending. They were careless about the details, used quotes from us in a half-baked way that damaged our relationship with the Americans, and were generally just shit. They were penned by Callinicos but (as an ISO comrade recently pointed out to me) signed by both him and Cliff. Every time one of them landed in the IS office we would sigh because we knew it would generate more heat than light. It didn’t help that, increasingly, the Brits were screwing around directly in the ISO – backing some members who were expelled for behaving in ways that the Brits would never accept (“Facebook 4” anyone?), trying to split the leadership of the ISO and get Ahmed booted from their Steering Committee. But the ISO was also petulant and sulking that they would ever be treated this way (like the Canadians, for example). We ought to have said something but the general feeling amongst everyone on the Steering Committee was that we didn’t want to get caught in the middle of what seemed like a schoolyard shoving match. A letter that was sent from the Greeks at the time was probably the best thing that was written and didn’t have the arrogant tone of the British letters, though it was firm in its criticism of the ISO’s position. Now, the exact nature of the ISO’s relationship with the Greek faction isn’t known to me. What is clear is that Ahmed was listed as a speaker on the poster announcing the formation of a new group before even the Greek SEK’s convention where the faction had full rights. To say that was a breach of solidarity is an understatement. I personally believe that the Americans figured that the Brits were preparing to toss them anyway (remember Bambery’s admonition about implementing perspectives to stay in the Tendency?) and decided to strike first. Whatever the truth, they surrendered what should have been the high ground. But the silence from the rest of the Tendency, including us, has to be considered as having contributed to their sense of isolation and siege mentality, even given that their action was a shitty thing to do and that they were wrong (in my opinion) on the key questions of orientation to the struggles of the day.

The overall point of this recollection is that so goes the Brits, so goes the Tendency because they retain sole authority to intervene in groups of the IST. I’ve explored three different examples of how they intervened and I’m sure there are more but these stood out in my recollections. The splitting of branches and, later, the dissolution of branches were tactics generalized from the SWP CC throughout the Tendency. The attack on the ISO was a generalization of the method of treating the membership as a problem that needed to be corrected. This is not, it must be said, an argument against sharp political polemic but, rather, against a method of argument that disrespects groups and their traditions. If these were the result of a one-sided analysis, flowing from the SWPs bureaucratization, as I’ve argued, you can see why other organizations in the Tendency have a very direct interest in challenging the SWP CC when they are wrong. Similarly when they act in a high-handed and condescending fashion. It is not simply that if the SWP fails or collapses that the morale, theoretical infrastructure, and prestige of the Tendency with its (imho) unique theoretical contributions will be damaged. It is that the practice of each and every group will be distorted along the way. And any future, direct intervention by the Brits will be distorted and reflect their bureaucratic methods at home. There are now several long-standing groups with extensive, albeit mixed, experiences building revolutionary organizations and building struggles. They shouldn't be shy about raising disagreements. As I suggested previously this doesn’t mean intervening every time there is a debate. Leaderships need to be mature enough to know when a debate has international significance.

Finally, I heard that the Australian IST group came out in support of the CC around the present crisis and have heard rumours that the Irish group sent a resolution from their NC privately criticizing the SWP CC. However, outside of these two there has been silence as far as I’m aware. But there are three additional reasons (at least) why there ought to be an open discussion of the present crisis. The first is that open discussion and debate educates the cadre, teaches them in the application of the Marxist method. The second is that if shockwaves of the crisis spread internationally (in the era of the internet, how could it not?), you want to be on the record and be clear about your position so that the membership can tackle questions they face with confidence from allies and members. The third reason is that if there had been greater solidarity with the opposition – with whom I obviously sympathize – this would have strengthened their hand to challenge the kind of bureaucratic maneuvers that we are seeing. It would have made a split less likely as the comrades would have seen that there were allies within the Tendency willing to back them in challenging the high-handed bureaucratic maneuvers of the SWP CC. And it would have given pause to thought of some of the membership who ended up in the “loyalist” camp – just as it would have if we’d been more forthright during the crisis with the ISO. Not only is silence consent and agreement in this instance, it is also a submission to a problematic and damaging method. Personally, I think that it’s not too late. But it most definitely is late enough to have exacted a price already. Any “solidarity” that is based upon my "party right or wrong" or silence because we ought not to criticize the official leadership of the SWP is both a bureaucratic conception of solidarity and unhealthy for the IST. As Lenin wrote, the history of Bolshevism is a history of controversy.

NEXT: Is the SWP A Dead Duck?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SWP Bureaucracy & The IST: Part 1

The tradition in the IST is to not intervene in the controversies and debates of other organizations. This was explained to me as a reaction against the practice amongst the early Trotskyists & within the Fourth International to involve every affiliated organization in the debates of every other national section. But, it was pointed out, that it was a bit foolish and grandiose for these tiny organizations to be providing direction and critique given how marginal and troubled they were. They ought better be focusing on their own problems. On the other hand, one might argue, it could be a useful learning experience and a chance to generalize across organizations, as well as a chance for other organizations to get input that might have some objective distance. Whatever the case may be I do still think groups ought to be careful about intervening in the debates of other groups, if for no other reason than that a giant pile-on into a debate can escalate it out of proportion to its real significance. However, I also think that silence isn’t always golden. A leadership has to be mature enough to know the difference. But enough fence-sitting…

Because of this admonition we largely kept to ourselves. Except for the British leadership. Being the oldest, most experienced and largest group, they necessarily had a lot of prestige and were like the parent group to all us little kiddies. This was particularly true of Cliff who was, after all, The Founder Of The Tendency, and who was both very experienced and very opinionated. He also read the newspapers of every group in the Tendency and often took a particular interest in this or that country. And he had no qualms about providing detailed political direction to groups. After the 1994 convention in Canada, we received a letter from Cliff, hand delivered by Ahmed S from the ISO, telling us that we were prone to apolitical “faction” fights that were really clique fights because the organization was too passive, there was no criteria for leadership other than charm and talk. He told us to double our dues base, go immediately to a bi-weekly newspaper and hire full-timers (I believe this was the third prescription – it’s been a while and I didn’t keep all my notes from back then). To be honest, Cliff was right. The errors in the implementation – and they were significant – were ours to own, for which I must take a significant amount of blame.

But we could never imagine that if there were a crisis in the SWP of a similar nature or even in the Australians, who were rumoured to be a tad weird and to live in a commune type of set-up, it would not have been tolerated.


In any case, this one-sidedness hadn’t been such a problem, I think, until the 1990s and the now infamous “30s in slow motion” description of the changing period, coined by Cliff. (I joined in ’91, however, so some may want to contradict me) I still think that Cliff’s formulation was basically correct in terms of the purpose it was meant to serve. But there were two problems. The first was that he said “30s in slow motion” and we heard “the Great Depression is coming and fascism will soon be on the march, etc”. In retrospect, it might have been better to describe the return of crisis and politicization in the 90s as a return to capitalist normality. But this was Cliff’s stick-bending at work – seize the key link: the return of capitalist crisis with all its attendant effects from political polarization to immiseration of the working class – as a polemical weapon to shift the practice of the groups in the Tendency, including the SWP. The second problem, as just suggested, was that the SWP CC were pushing to overcome the conservatism of their membership. As I discussed previously, this meant Chris Bambery splitting up branches into tiny cells a la the CP in the 1930s (we obviously weren’t the only ones who missed the “slow” part of the formulation). They had also taken it upon themselves to break the conservatism of groups in the IST.

I can remember attending my first International Meeting in London, massively impressed by the size of the Marxism event with which it was concurrent. I remember two things about the meeting. The first was Chris Harman’s presentation on the revolutionary paper (I believe all the presentations were by the SWP and maybe one by the ISO). It was basically direction on how to turn our stale, theoretical-propaganda papers into something more vibrant and agitational to fit the changed circumstances of the 90s. The second thing I remember was Chris Bambery standing up in a session on general perspectives and barking (he always seemed to be barking whenever I saw him, which sort of endeared him to me but, then, I only saw him once a year) that having a state capitalist position on the USSR was not sufficient to be a member of the IST. You also had to implement the perspectives. I was young and inexperienced, and this seemed very impressively Bolshie. I didn’t ask the question – who gets to determine perspectives? When do we vote on it and who gets to judge if we’re implementing it correctly?

Now, it may be one thing to “bend the stick” in a relatively large (compared to the rest of us) organization of a few thousand with long-standing militants and with roots in some unions, etc. It is quite another in small, fragile organizations that are often little more than series of discussion circles, with no roots and which tend to operate as much on the basis of cliqueism as revolutionary principle. It’s hard not to be a clique when everyone knows everyone personally in the group. A more measured approach is in order – unless the pressure of objective circumstances is so severe that it is unavoidable. Within a couple of years there were splits in Australia, Canada, Germany and, I believe, Ireland. There may have been others that I’ve now forgotten. Were some of these avoidable? Were they all necessary to move the groups forward? I can’t speak for the other groups, of course, but in the case of the Canadian IS it was a mixed result, shall we say. On the one hand it probably did push us outward and break the very deterministic view that people held about the downturn (all struggles will shift to the right). On the other, Cliff’s prescriptions, particularly his admonition that leadership should lead in practice and not “from the back of the room”, were distorted and used by one clique leader to marginalize and humiliate the other clique leader and his allies, leading to a major split. (Mea culpa: I went along with this at the time. Allow me to blame my inexperience.) By the end of the “the turn” we had tiny branches, just like the Brits, of a few people sitting in a room wondering how they were supposed to “build locally”. I remember talking with the American comrades at, I believe, the same Marxism as I mentioned above in July ‘94. They were saying that they intended to get off of campuses and focus on building in working class communities. The Brits, I think, opposed this but there was a certain logic to pushing the “we need to be the CP of the 1930s with better politics” model. Everyone was reading Communists In Harlem During the Great Depression and Hammer & Hoe about the CPUSA in the Deep South. Needless to say, the ISO returned to building on campuses and later rejected the 1930s in slow motion slogan during the debates at the end of the 90s.

This basic method was again repeated during the big anti-war movement leading up to 2003 but perhaps more profoundly. The argument now coming from Britain was to eliminate branches entirely so that comrades’ time would be freed up to build the anti-war movement. This was, in a certain sense, a noble, self-sacrificing sentiment, to place the movement ahead of the party. But it meant in all the groups that followed this advice, that the full-timers in particular had to substitute for the membership, who were no longer sustaining the organization because the organization barely existed. The ultimate result was that while we did work of which we ought to be proud in trying to resist the looming war in Iraq our perspectives were distorted and our gains were negligible as an organization. There was simply nothing to recruit people to and to hold them. And since the anti-war movement had become the be all and end all of our practice (not to say that people weren’t involved in other struggles, but in terms of the delegation of party resources) we lied to ourselves that a movement still existed even after it should have been apparent that it was well and truly over. Besides, as I discussed previously, strengthening the tendency towards substitutionism, it made crises almost inevitable once the wave had receded and this couldn’t be denied any longer.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The SWP & Revolutionary Bureaucracy or No One Here Gets Out Alive

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the international working class suffered a series of decisive defeats. This put to a halt and set in reverse the post-war tendency for living standards to rise and a more recent phenomenon of rising worker militancy. It led to years of a downturn in struggle, the decimation of rank and file organization and the dominance of Tory parties. And it marked the rise of neo-liberalism as a method and ideology intended to dismantle the Keynesian welfare state. It was part of the attempt to restore western capitalism to higher profitability, following the return of classic capitalist crisis.

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.

In the IST we have always had, I believe, a unique analysis of the trade union bureaucracy. We see them as a middling layer between workers and management. Their daily conditions are different from workers on the shop floor, subjected to the discipline, alienation, frequently low pay and petty harassment of the workplace. The full-time leadership spend as much of their time negotiating with management and enforcing the contract – even on their own membership – as they do with rank and file workers. The interruption of “normalcy” by worker militancy or a wildcat strike, threatens to damage their credibility in the eyes of the bosses and “disrupts” union activity as it comes to be understood. They’re no use as negotiators if they can’t control their members, after all.

However, in retrospect there is a small hole missing in this analysis and it’s one through which the camel of revolutionary party bureaucracy can fit. It’s not simply the case that the union machine is identified with the union leader. The union apparatus can include hundreds or thousands of union workers, from the frontline organizers whose job is to service the membership, to the office workers who administer union benefits funds, accountants, in-house legal staff, secretaries, janitorial staff, etc. etc. Many of these people must also be accounted as part of the union machine and, particularly those who have a front-line relationship with the workers whom they ostensibly represent, can easily become an obstacle to the development of worker militancy. Like the service worker in a restaurant who sees the special demands of customers as a bother, the frontline union staff member also experiences the special demands of the workers whom they service as a disruption of their routine. And the less that the workers “disrupt” their routine the more acutely this is felt when they do intervene. The effect of alienated labour effects the union staffer no less than it does other workers. There is no escaping the culturally corrosive impact of capitalism. Alienation is a ubiquitous feature of the system.

This is not the same as the problem of the union leader who has different material interests and who hobnobs with the bosses and wears three-piece suits. 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.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. You don’t need a middling layer with different lived conditions a la the full-time union leadership to develop a bureaucracy. The full-timers in the SWP are appointed directly by the CC (to where the best or most loyal of them, depending on your perspective, will end up). In the context of low levels of struggle, which has been the case for the better part of the last 30 years, half of the full-timer’s job is to motivate the members, to exhort them to be more active. And, of course, it is to substitute for the passive members – making the posters, doing the call-arounds for special meetings, keeping on top of the books, the fund driving campaigns in their district, etc. There may be a sense of mission as revolutionaries but it doesn’t negate the fact that the universality of alienation means that this is experienced in the same qualitative way as wage labour.

A number of years ago, when I was on the IS Steering Committee, there was a debate in the SWP about who would appoint party full-timers. The old way had been for them to be democratically appointed from the district in which they were to work. But sometime in the 1990s (at least this was when I became aware of it) an argument was raised that the full-timers ought to be appointed by the party centre because, otherwise, the full-timers would feel beholden to the district and not the national party. This, it was argued would hinder the implementation of national perspectives and thus be anti-democratic. There is a certain logic to this, which ought not to be discounted out of hand, but in the context of a tendency towards substitutionism, this removed the full-timers one more step from the pressure of the membership. They are not accountable to the members but to the national leadership. Technically that makes them accountable to the annual conference, but the annual conference deals with very little in the way of the day-to-day running of the SWP being more focused on general perspectives and assessing past work. And full-timers are, of course, mobilized by the CC to make sure that delegations reflect a supportive composition. For workers with families as well as party and campaign/union responsibilities, it becomes difficult to resist the full-time attention of the CC-backed full-timer.

The other thing that happened in the 90s was that then-National Secretary of the SWP Chris Bambery started splitting the branches. The logic was impeccable, if the 90s were like the 1930s in slow motion, then we must organize like the Communist Parties did in the 1930s (in slow motion?). Of course the CPs were mass parties with deep roots inside the working classes of their countries. And nobody asked if maybe the CP model of organizing after the parties were fully subordinate to Stalin’s Moscow might not be more than a bit problematic. But, in either case, making branches tiny made them more reliant upon the full-timers for material support and made members even more isolated from each other. This tendency was deepened when branches were dissolved in their entirety at the beginning of the new decade in order to “break” the conservatism of the membership and push them into the movements. Now the only organized, active element within the party was the apparatus. The leadership had, in a Brechtian turn, dissolved an unworthy membership.

As I said, no one can escape history, not even Tony Cliff. 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 distortionn explains why the cure for conservatism was directed solely at the membership. 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. Certainly there were individuals who were unlucky enough to attrack 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.

While there is a diabolical logic to this it’s important to see that this wasn’t a diabolical process. Nobody was conscious of the process and everyone involved were “good Marxists” with the intention to change the world. But, as has happened so many times before, the world changed them not the other way around (a reading of Victor Serge on the degeneration of the Bolsheviks would be apropos or even Kautsky’s history of early Christianity as it decayed from a lay church of “primitive proletarian” revolutionaries to what we have today). Such is the universal law of irony. Luckily, a sufficient number of old members weren’t fully reprogrammed to the new model. A spark remained even if they went along with it wholeheartedly when it seemed to be delivering results - like the massive anti-war movement or even the initial growth in the mid-90s that many IST groups experienced. But bureaucratism also makes organizations brittle and prone to crisis and fracture. Once the anti-war movement receded and the party made few numerical gains out of it – no doubt in part as a result of the fact that the party had been dissolved and could provide no real pole of attraction – the crises were only a step away. Beginning (at least openly) with the utter debacle of Respect in 2007, the party has reeled from one split to the next, from crisis to crisis. This has undermined the party leadership and the model that has prevailed up till now. That loss of esteem was a necessary precondition to the present explosion of criticism. What we are seeing today is a battle for the soul of the SWP between the bureaucracy and a section of the membership – apparently the most active (according to opposition sources but I am not in a position to judge this).

Things are moving fast inside the SWP with last night’s announcement of the mass resignation of over 70 members, probably to be joined by numerous others who resigned individually. As is probably apparent from my analysis, I am sympathetic to the reasons why they have done so. The real danger is that they have played into the plan of the CC – which was, I believe, to make the environment so hostile that hardcore opposition would leave, weakening any wavering elements inside the party to continue the struggle. My fear is that this will weaken the struggle against the party bureaucracy and lead to the loss of what, in my view, was the most profound reclamation of the real Marxist tradition since the profound defeat of the Russian Revolution by Stalinism almost 90 years ago. Party members ought to, of course, ask themselves how much faith they put in a leadership that has presided over three splits in three years, four if you include the split from Respect.

MORE TO COME: Bureaucracy & The IST

* I want to say two things here by way of mea culpa, I suppose: The first is that I supported the SWP position during the Respect split, even as misgivings mounted. By the time the ugly mess cleared I realized what a disaster it was. My apologies for my tiny contribution to the surplus of bullshit on the planet.
The second is of a more academic nature: I don't have footnotes and my discussion would totally fail any academic tests of competency. Sorry, I'm just a prole and not a prof, I don't have the time or resources or inclination to make this a proper essay. These are my thumbnail sketches based upon the analyses I developed being in the IS and my experiences over 22 years.

Monday, March 11, 2013

SWP Special Conference Shows Bureaucracy's Fangs

On Sunday, March 10 the British Socialist Workers Party held a Special Conference to deal with the crisis that has been raging in its organization since its annual January conference. The trigger for the crisis was an allegation of rape against a member of the party’s Central Committee (CC) that was reviewed by a Disputes Committee composed of long-time colleagues and friends of the accused. I have written about this elsewhere and the details of the case are all over the internet – I don’t want to review them again. But this specific case had the impact of unleashing a whole raft of pent-up frustrations and disillusionment in the leadership and democratic processes of the organization. It became the spark that lit a fire in the membership, leading to the launch of the largest faction in opposition to the CC in the 40-year history of the organization.

The CC tried to end-run the opposition – many of whom were calling for an emergency conference to respond to events with the usual three month discussion period. The CC instead called a Special Conference with a much shorter timeline – 1 month lead-time. And the remit of the conference wasn’t to explore the cause of the crisis and repair the rift in the party but, instead, to smash the opposition and reaffirm the decisions of the annual conference that were controversial amongst the membership.
The purpose of the conference was, in sum, to intimidate and demoralize the faction in order to disrupt their momentum and crush opposition to their bad decisions.

Because the CC was rapidly losing the argument amongst the membership and the balance was shifting towards the faction, they worked all out to undermine the normal democratic processes in the party. They lied about what happened, who said what and when, who knew what when, etc. They used an ever-shifting rulebook to exclude and include people who could enter district aggregate meetings where delegates were selected in order to skew it in favour of the CC. Party full-timers went full out to mobilize passive, long-standing members who were more likely to support the CC. In districts where the CC had a lot of support they went in guns blazing, attacking the opposition, using name-calling and threats of expulsions. In districts where there was more support for the faction, the CC was conciliatory, promising that they were listening and had heard the concerns.

The short turnaround before the conference meant that most members hadn’t even seen the internal bulletin with the faction’s full arguments prior to voting on their delegates to conference. And in districts where the supporters of the CC were in the majority – even if only by a few people – they excluded every supporter of the faction from the conference delegation. In some large districts the faction had 40% support and yet got no delegates at all. There are more horror stories than this but it is enough to make it clear that the Special Conference was made particularly special by the fact that it in no way democratically reflected the sentiment in the party. It was a jerry-rigged echo chamber whose purpose was to hail the leadership and condemn their critics. It’s job was to win votes and be a show of force against oppositionists who were threatened with expulsion. Long-standing leader and party theoretician, Alex Callinicos – who had only days earlier told a North London aggregate that the CC was listening and making changes – told the conference that the faction’s resolutions should be treated with the contempt they deserved.

All of this is very disheartening for those of us who have been members and supporters of the International Socialist Tendency. I was a member for 22-years and sat on the Steering Committee of the International Socialists Canada for 7 years. My political worldview has been shaped and inspired by the SWP, by their dedicated work against imperialism, fascism, austerity.

How did this happen? How did a party dedicated to socialism from below – the idea of workers taking over society to run it democratically to meet human need – become a bureaucratic hellion determined to crush internal critics? Many people have pointed to the model of organization used by the SWP, democratic centralism. Or they have said that the particular features of the SWPs model of democratic centralism – a ban on permanent factions, election of the CC on the basis of proposed slates – are the root cause. They suggest that a broad party or multi-tendency party is the answer. However, I think that these organizational approaches miss their target. There’s plenty of multi-tendency parties and broad parties – Canada’s NDP and the Britain’s Labour Party for instance – are riddled with bureaucracy and undemocratic practices. Other revolutionary parties, like the NPA in France and the SSP in Scotland, have permanent factions or platforms and this hasn’t prevented them from imploding or suffering from problems of bureaucratic methods.

Each organizational form is not in itself the problem any more than it is, in itself, the solution. In a mass party of tens of thousands of members, encompassing a significant section of at least the leadership of the working class, there will be all sorts of shades of opinions. People may agree that only the working class can liberate itself through revolution but they may disagree on many other things and this will create currents and platforms and factions that don’t simply abide by conference timetables. Any rich, vibrant, alive party will be like a living organism that resists attempts to constrain it.

But if you try to recreate that multi-tendency model in small organizations with little social weight – as Leon Trotsky and his followers attempted when they declared the Fourth International without any serious social base – you end up with a debating society. The SWPs model evolved out of a desire to focus outwards, away from interminable debate and as a way to resist “entryism” by tiny socialist groups who were only interested in creating splits to capture members for themselves. In a small party like the SWP such entryist activities could quickly cause problems and instability. In a mass party not only are they mere pinpricks but the relative difference in scale – tiny, pure sect vs vibrant mass party with all the social, collegial and political ties that it would contain – makes the tiny sect that much less appealing. Size is the best defense, as it were. The slate system was also an innovation geared towards stability, not an unreasonable goal in a small group where the lack of social weight means that there is little material pressure to resist people leaving if things become internalized. These models have reasons and causes that are legitimate and not, in and of themselves the cause of bureaucracy – though they are organizational tactics that are time and space delimited; ie they are not the right way to go at any and all times.

The cause of the present bureaucratic degeneration, so baldly on display with the present crisis is the result of history. Nobody and no one, not the most pure revolutionary, can escape the pressure of historical forces. The SWP has been made sick by history and it may not survive the fever.

TOMORROW:  The Rise of Bureaucracy or No One Here Gets Out Alive
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