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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