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.