This document was produced for a recent SWP Pre-Conference Bulletin, being one of the most cogent criticisms there of current SWP theory and practice, it is of course purely coincidental that the author was then expelled for participating in a 'secret faction' (see the Democratic Opposition Faction Document for details of this affair). This, in other words, is the argument the SWP leadership does not want heard at their forthcoming conference.
It is fair to say the task facing our party over the next period is
by any standards immense. The responsibility of relating to, building
and leading the growing movement against austerity would be a heavy
burden for an organisation 10 times our size.
As **** illustrated in his piece in IB 1 (‘Raising the political level of the party’), the difficulty of this is intensified by both the low ideological level and the weak organisational strength of the traditional workers organisations.
For this reason, the lead the party gives both strategically and tactically on a local and national level is of the upmost importance. Though we must be realistic about the extent to which we can shape the resistance to austerity within Britain, we never the less must be aware of the important role we will play within the struggle. Our ability to formulate a coherent strategy, both capable of pulling the most militant around us while shaping the movement more generally, will in the first instance be shaped by our rootedness and having a cadre centrally involved in struggle. Any organisation that accepts the centrality of the working class, while at the same time being peripheral to that class’s struggles and organisations can only be an abstract, propagandist sect.
Equally as important, however, is that those same militants have an organisation in which their experiences and views are brought together collectively, assessed, and acted upon. In this sense the democratic aspect of a revolutionary party is not an added extra, but an absolutely integral element; not only in attempting to apply the correct approach the first time round, but in also correcting the errors that will inevitably be made along the way. The complete freedom of exchange of ideas and criticism in the first instance, and the absolute unity in action once a decision has been reached, remains the clearest and best way of organising a revolutionary working class organisation. This, in a sense, is quite a formulaic way of approaching the question. No party seriously engaged in struggle can ever hope to secure for itself a perfect way of organising.
At different times it is obvious that organisational or political necessity will take precedent over democratic process. It is also clearly the case that not every issue by necessity needs a referendum of the opinions of the whole party before it can act. Never the less, a revolutionary organisation should always take seriously its own democratic structures and ensure that to the best of its ability it is functioning as best as it can.
Within our own party, this has been the subject of debate for quite some time. From the ‘Democracy Commission’ onwards, it has generally been recognised that there are improvements to be made, and in part there has been. The worst elements of previous bad practice have been left behind; certainly the party feels more open than it once did.
However, for the large part many of the same problems persist, and not enough has been done to seriously tackle them. While a change of personnel on the Central Committee has improved things slightly, it has done little to change the political culture within the organisation.
Substitutionism is still rife within the party, both politically and organisanionally. In most areas the political leadership is in the hands of a small number of comrades and full timers, with the larger membership passive.
This passivity has in most places led to a complete disengagement with the party’s strategy and its democratic structures, and is having an extremely damaging effect within the organisation. Further compounding this problem is the lack of critical engagement from the active core of the party; where it does exist, it is often dropped, for fear of alienating less experienced members or seeming disloyal. This also is clearly a hangover from the last 20 years, where political disagreement was dealt with through suppression of ideas and people being shouted down. Never the less, it still exists throughout the party.
On a national level this trend is intensified ten-fold. The party strategy is driven entirely from the centre, with the experiences and views of the majority of comrades given little consideration, and differences of opinion given little time. Taken overall, far from the organisation being one of controversy and debate, most comrades are politically under-confident to raise criticism, unused to the rigour of constructive debate and argument, and the overall political level remains very low. Even more worrying than this however is the deep cynicism that exists within the organisation towards different areas of our work. There are three areas in particular I would point to which I think are symptomatic of this problem.
Firstly, the membership lists. Considering the central importance of maintaining a reliable membership list within a revolutionary organisation, it is terrifying how few comrades trust them. It is well known that the majority of people on the lists are not members (many never were), and that it is easier to squeeze blood from a stone than getting people taken off. These lists are then used as a basis for an assessment of our organisations size, which is clearly going to be completely distorted. I was told recently that Leeds had 153 members. If this is the case, the district must have ten more branches that I’m not aware of (maybe I’ve just stumbled across our underground membership?), or we are employing the age old method of kidology.
Keeping accurate records is often difficult, and the famous story of Sverdlov miscalculating the Bolsheviks numbers attests to that. But if we get our numbers wrong by a few thousand, we are in danger of quadrupling the actual size of the party. What is most worrying about this situation is that very few comrades are actual willing to raise this with the centre, despite it being the consensus in branches and districts. For most it is considered not worth the hassle of the argument which ultimately is considered fruitless, which anybody that has ever broached the subject with the office will attest to. The fact that this situation is allowed to continue is highly indicative of the problems within the party.
The second issue is that of Party Council. Despite Party Council being one of the most important democratic institutions our party has, engagement with it is at an all-time low. Many comrades have come to see it as dull, unimportant and a rubber stamp for the Central Committee. In 10 years in the party I have never known a branch vote on its delegates and arguments tend to revolve around why people shouldn’t have to go, rather than why they should. It’s clear to see why; the first session of the last Party Council was dominated (numerically and politically) by full-timers and observers from the National Committee, with little input from actual delegates.
Despite there being differences within the party over a number of aspects within our industrial work and perspectives, not a single one was raised within the session. Instead it followed a similar formula to most other Party Councils which did little but raise awareness of the next important protest / conference. The one time a comrade did raise a disagreement with the CC, she was cut off (despite CC members going well over their time) and the CC member summing up spent ten of his fifteen minutes responding to her point. This being the case it is little wonder that comrades are not engaged with the party’s democracy.
Thirdly, and certainly the most worrying, concerns the party’s national strategy. It is clear that many comrades have completely switched off from the party’s national work, many not attempting to follow the latest twist or turn. It is doubtful how many comrades could give you a meaningful explanation as to the difference between Right to Work and Unite the Resistance; it is even more doubtful how many could explain why one was all but dropped from the party’s activities. At the heart of this is a cynicism rooted in a membership seldom consulted, rarely influencing the party’s policy, and considered conservative when they fail to adequately “bend the stick”.
As is often the case, a lack of democratic debate and engagement doesn’t lead to greater unity in action; it instead leads to dissatisfaction which has no outlet but through passivity. It is in this area that we have the most work to do and which is of the greatest urgency. To address these problems the party must begin to take seriously its democratic process and the raising of the political level. We must also change the way we operate to facilitate greater involvement and engagement with the party’s structures and procedures. I believe ***’s proposals in IB1 would be a good starting point for that, and would like to propose the following motions for further consideration.
1) Debate in the Paper
We re-affirm our commitment to last year’s motion, noting than on the occasions the paper ran debates it was an extremely useful tool and definitely worth continuing. “Socialist Worker should frequently carry features on the theme 'debates in the movement' which help readers to understand those debates and the SWP’s position within them by giving space to a range of opinions. When such debates are also reflected within the party and united action is not immediately required on the issue, the features can also be used to air debates between SWP comrades in order to raise the level of clarity and assist debate in party branches and fractions.”
2) Party Council Internal Bulletin
The creation of a Party Internal Bulletin prior to each Party Council. Open for any comrade, or group of comrades, to contribute to, but with space provided for branch, district and fraction reports. The Internal Bulletins offer a unique opportunity for comrades to discuss, debate and report, whilst also using them as a tool to greater understand the current political situation, and the party’s strategy. The creation of an internal bulletin prior to each Party Council would not only enable comrades the opportunity share or debate ideas more frequently, it would also give far greater direction to Party Council itself. The encouragement of comrades to contribute would also increase the engagement
in the party’s democratic structures.
3) National Committee
A commission to be elected to oversee the change in the composition of National Committee, with the aim being to create greater regional and fraction involvement. This would attempt to solve the anomaly of large areas of the country being absented from important national discussions, whilst also allowing for those at the fore of struggle to have an input into important political decisions. It would also greatly increase the active interest and participation in one of the party’s most important democratic institutions.
4) Central Committee Elections
The removal of the “slate system” as it is currently practiced. The right of comrades to propose slates should remain, but the election of comrades to the Central Committee should be on an individual basis. The monolithic style of leadership advocated and practised by Rees/German, while possibly serving a purpose in a period of working class defeat, has no place in a revolutionary party with the class in ascendency. Political differences should be openly acknowledged, with the debates open to the party. Different political tendencies should be represented on the CC, not suppressed behind a veil of “unity”. This would be an important step to fostering a culture of open and honest debate within the party.
Paris (Leeds & West Yorkshire)