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. :)