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Democratic centralism in the International Socialist tradition

We have covered the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) Central Committee’s mishandling of the dispute concerning a rape allegation. But what is it about the SWP’s culture and politics that has allowed this issue spark a wider internal rebellion? It clearly lacks any self-righting mechanism that could have corrected mistakes before they threatened to tear it apart.

We think that democratic centralism is the cornerstone of a practice that enables members of a revolutionary organisation to own it and to hold their leaders accountable. This article will look at how decades of bureaucratic reprisals have smashed the self-righting mechanism of party democracy in the SWP.

The expulsion of four comrades on 12 December, just before conference, on trumped-up charges of “secret factionalism” was plainly an attempt to deny conference the possibility of overturning the purge. By denying them the right to appeal to conference, these summary expulsions violated conference’s right to hear their political criticisms, and then make a judgment on that basis. Thus it was the contempt of the Central Committee (CC) both towards conference and the members concerned that constituted the real violation of democratic centralism.

The CC thereby made a rebellion and disruption of the party’s life inevitable. Doubtlessly, they assumed that because the party leadership had got away with it in the past, they would always be able to do so.

Since 1975 the SWP and its predecessor, the International Socialists (IS), has operated with a bureaucratic pastiche of democratic centralism. While it is not the absolute dictatorship of the leaders characteristic of high Stalinism, it does resemble the regime in the parties of the Communist International in the mid to late 1920s. Its political basis then, as now, was the leadership’s need to suppress criticism of its centrist zigzagging between opportunist and ultra-left policies. The disastrous consequences of those policies drove the Communist International’s leadership to smash the self-correcting processes of genuine democratic centralism. It had to ban factions, rig the method of electing of the leadership, and suppress dissent generally.

The comparable growth of bureaucratic centralism in the SWP was not simply a question of a caste of paid full-timers, as US academic Pham Binh and his British admirers claim. In the 1920s, just as today, it was political degeneration that preceded organisational degeneration. The rise of a full-time apparatus outside the control of the members was a result of the then IS leadership’s failures in the stormy period of struggle between 1968 and 1975.

These included the IS’s policies on Northern Ireland, the strike waves of 1971-2 and 1974, the creation and later abandonment of work amongst women, tactics towards the Labour party and the 1974 Wilson-Callaghan government, the rank and file movements in the trade unions and, last but not least, the necessity for a party programme.

Furthermore, when the IS leadership used organisational measures to break up opposition, this caused experienced branch level cadre, women and gay activists and industrial militants to revolt.

A whole series of factional struggles erupted between 1971 and 1975. First there was the expulsion of the Trotskyist Tendency – a group who became Workers Fight, then Socialist Organiser and finally, after major political mutations, today’s Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). In 1972-3 Workers Power’s predecessor the Left Faction came into being. In 1973 another grouping, the so-called “Right Faction” around David Yaffe was expelled.

The tensions within IS eventually even split the old guard gathered around its founder, Tony Cliff. Jim Higgins, Roger Protz, John Palmer and a number of car worker militants in Birmingham formed the IS Opposition. Cliff and his loyalists launched a massive series of purges in 1975, decimating the party’s cadre and consolidating the bureaucratic centralist regime that exists today. Thereafter, the party was held together only by an apparatus of full-timers.

In a revolutionary organisation, experienced members, branch and district leaders, union militants and the leaders of women’s and other fractions, act as its cadre, its officers and NCOs, and build up a wealth of experience that makes them not just an invaluable resource for the leadership, but also a check on its excesses.

Of course this cadre can also at times be a conservative factor, and leaders may find its resistance to tactical “turns” irksome. But the solution Cliff and company resorted to was a bad one: the repeated ousting of dissidents, purging experienced cadres as “routinists”, and their replacement with new full-timers who were denied the right to act as thinking party members with their own views, or who were quickly ousted if they did.

Our view of democratic centralism

A point needs to be made here that often seems to get lost. What is a revolutionary party for? For Workers Power the purpose of the party is to be an effective weapon in the struggle of the working class for power. The actuality of the revolution, its present relevance to what we are doing now, however far away it may seem to be, gives questions of organisation a deadly seriousness. Unlike libertarians, we do not start from the rights or autonomy of individuals, nor do we make democracy a “categorical imperative.”

The party’s structure is determined by its intended function – to fuse with and lead the revolutionary class in its struggle for power. This in turn is subject to considerations determined by the external conditions of that struggle, and by the very process of building that party: by the different stages that this process passes through, and by what social and political forces participate in it. Internal struggles are an inevitable and necessary part of this, as are splits and fusions with other forces.

Workers Power considers itself a Leninist and not a libertarian organisation. We do not believe that a revolutionary organisation can grant absolute rights to individual members to say or do whatever they want. As members of a voluntarily organisation, they should act in public as its representatives, and should be expected to carry out its decisions, including arguing for its agreed positions. Since instantaneous and direct democracy for every policy and action is impossible – as the Occupy movement discovered to its cost – this must mean that the individual does indeed accept leadership “from above”.

As long as all members have the right to play a full part in the democratic decision-making process, and have the right to appeal against any disciplinary measures, this is neither authoritarian nor an alien imposition. Only an individualist anarchist can argue against this with any consistency. But this does not stop many people who call themselves socialists or even Leninists stealing the anarchists’ clothes and trying to deceive the unwary.

The democratic rights of individual members are to participate in the collective making of party policy, both in branches and at conference; at all times to discuss freely and to criticise providing this does not disrupt an ongoing action. A leadership that obstructs or “rigs” this process is behaving in a disloyal way to its own membership, and is itself acting as a “secret faction”. To prevent the facilities granted to a leadership (an office, full-timers, communications, transport etc.) from turning into privileges against the membership, the actions of the leadership must be open to criticism – either by individuals or groupings, both in private and at party meetings.

Critics must be free to form temporary blocs to promote their proposals, and longer-term tendencies and factions to put forward their ideas without fear of disciplinary action for doing so. Here the question of internal bulletins (or their equivalents in the modern electronic world) comes in. A leadership that is confident in the correctness of its policies will accord its critics the resources to make their views known. That way it can retain their loyalty, even if it cannot persuade them, and help immeasurably to preserve the trust of the members as a whole. As Lenin said in “What Is To Be Done?” the spirit underpinning and making discipline effective is “mutual comradely confidence.”

Workers Power does not believe that individual members have a right to argue publicly against a revolutionary organisation’s policy. This does not mean that we have never or would never allow internal differences to be expressed in public. But we insist this must be a decision of the organisation and is not, therefore, a right.

The revolutionary organisation has, in our view, the right to decide which matters may be or may not discussed publicly, because the collective rather than individuals must decide what is in the general interest and what is not. If people cannot bear any restriction at all on their “right” to individual self-expression, then they are plainly not what Lenin called “party people”. However admirable they may be in other respects, they are obviously incapable of discipline and unsuited to be members of a Leninist organisation.

In small propaganda groups, organisations whose size restricts them to arguing that the mass workers’ movement or larger organisations should adopt its policies, the ability of all members to concentrate their arguments becomes critical. If groups of members in one propaganda group argue against one another in public, they are for all intents and purposes two propaganda groups. And if their voices are so multitudinous (and cacophonous), then they are not serious organisations at all, but only a discussion club. If that is what some people want then by all means set them up, but leave those of us who want to build revolutionary parties our freedom to do so.

Even the most elementary workers’ organisations, strike committees and trade unions, require the submission of minorities to majorities once a decision is democratically taken. In political organisations this principle encompasses much more.

A party cannot offer individual autonomy or make it into an absolute principle without destroying itself. The reason for this discipline – in the arguments we present as well as the actions we take – is that for a Marxist, words and deeds do not belong on different planets – one the sphere of organization, and the other of individual self-expression.

The arguments we make (whether of theory, propaganda or agitation) have as their objective winning people, individuals, whole groups and “the masses”, to those actions we believe are vitally necessary: uniting the fragmented anti-cuts campaigns, fighting for a general strike to kick out this government, etc.

That is why the content of these arguments is vitally important, and deciding on this is what a party exists for quite as much as carrying out the actions themselves. In order for these ideas to be tested by action (and corrected if they are proved wrong in the light of experience), centralised discipline is required during the entire process – from words right through to deeds. But at the beginning and at the end it requires an objective and collective discussion and decision by those who will carry them out. This is why democracy is inseparable from centralism.

Democracy from the working class point of view is simply the best the way of arriving at a correct strategy and tactics, to establish agreed goals uniting all the available capabilities and insights of groups and individuals into the best possible common approach.

Bureaucratic centralism however blocks out this process, reducing the membership to silence and leaving “ideas” to a self-perpetuating clique of leaders. When, as inevitably happens, these leaders fall out, they then try all they can to not have their disputes “in front of the children.” Such behaviour infantilises the members and lowers their political level, transforming the leadership’s internal disputes into little more than clique feuds. Political rationalisations appear only after the event, after the resultant splits and expulsions.

So what does the democratic part of democratic centralism involve, especially in the light of recent events in SWP? We might start by explaining how it works in Workers Power, a much smaller organisation than the SWP which itself in our view is much smaller than a genuine revolutionary workers’ party would be.

Unlike the Fourth International and its British section, Socialist Resistance, we do not believe that the existence of factions or tendencies should be a permanent feature of party life in a healthy revolutionary organisation. The right to form factions should be ensured in the constitution, and there should be no time limit or restriction on forming them beyond carrying out the decisions of the party’s legitimate leading bodies, as long these decisions are themselves legitimate. But the existence of permanent factions or tendencies, and the idea that a party’s internal life should consist of constant struggles for representation or dominance in its leadership is not Bolshevism or Trotskyism, but Menshevism. It was also a feature of the Labour Party until the purges of the late 1980s and 1990s.

In a federal party, combining unions and propaganda societies, it is inevitable; in the formation of new workers’ parties it may even be desirable and a necessity; but it is not an ideal and certainly has its bad features. The autonomy of its component parts usually means the autonomy of the parliamentarians and trade union leaders, not freedom for all but the freedom of privileged interests from control by their members. A Bolshevik (and not a Stalinist) model, flexible and adapting to changing circumstances and legal conditions, extremely democratic as well as centralised and disciplined, is the only successful party model we have, and there is no proven or trustworthy alternative to it.

A revolutionary programme is the only basis for democratic centralism

A problem for the SWP’s membership is that it cannot easily distinguish between the party’s fundamental politics – its overall strategy – its tactical and organisational principles and its changing perspectives and necessary tactical turns. It is ridiculous to claim that the “Where We Stand” in Socialist Worker is the party’s programme. If so, it must be the shortest and most threadbare programme in history.

Of course, various leading figures over the past four decades have written pamphlets summing up the party’s ideas, but these are not the product of democratic discussions and do not have the authority of a conference behind them. So they cannot be used to check the party leadership’s sudden departures from its former principles – like the cross-class electoral adventure Respect – or its zigzags around its various united fronts “of a special type”.

So misled are SWP members about what a transitional programme is – with those who argue for one labelled “programme fetishists” – that we need to state it clearly. It starts from an assessment of the period ahead, a perspective for the class struggle. It characterises the existing political and trade union leaderships of the working class, and explains why they are a mis-leadership that has to be replaced because of the destructive effects of their actions on workers’ struggles. It goes on to elaborate the sort of demands needed on all key fronts of the class struggle, and the types of organisation needed to win, to unite them, and to pose the question of workers’ power and the overthrow of capitalism.

An example is the struggle for workers’ control – to prevent closures and sackings, and the need for occupations to enforce this. In a situation of mass resistance using such methods, workers’ control poses a decisive challenge to managements’ “right to manage”, and opens up the prospect of workers’ management of a socialised economy. In short it is a bridge from today’s need to combat mass unemployment to the struggle for political power. Associated with Trotskyism, it was a method first developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks between 1917 and 1923.

The programme must also explain the guiding principles behind the various tactics – the united front, the struggle for rank and file democracy, and the workers’ council as the highest from of the united front, one that can eventually organise the struggle for power. It must include, too, the various democratic and social struggles – for women’s liberation, against racism etc.

With such a document it is possible to train the party’s membership. With a thinking cadre that understands the programme, the leadership is obliged to explain how its specific perspectives or tactics accord with it. On this basis, members of the party themselves can become cadres in the wider class struggle.

Of course nobody should ascribe magical properties to just publishing programmes and making propaganda for them, as something separate from agitating and organising in “the real world”. Any programme has to be supplemented by and developed into many other more concrete and specific policies, in order to be carried out in practice. Nor can a programme be held onto unchanged in changing conditions. Indeed, new programmes have to be elaborated whenever major transformations occur, albeit using the same method and containing fundamentally the same principles.

In fact the SWP fetishises not having a programme – a very British vice. After all, the Labour Party never really had one, making do with Clause Four, which is even shorter than the SWP’s “Where We Stand”. In justification, the SWP relies on Tony Cliff’’s oft repeated quips that Lenin made the 1917 revolution with a programme written in 1903.

But what of the April Theses, and all the programmatic resolutions Lenin wrote for the congresses of Russian Social Democracy? These were in effect the action programmes of the October revolution. Another classic Cliffite argument is that when you need a gun, to be given a blueprint of one is no use. But to produce functioning guns, accurate blueprints are needed; and if the party is a weapon of the class, then the programme is indeed the blueprint for its construction.

The SWP’s lack of a programme ultimately ensures that its members have no measuring stick by which to judge the leadership’s turns, or to correct mistakes before they do irreversible damage.

Unlike some others on the left, we do not want to see the Socialist Workers Party torn into pieces by its own Central Committee, determined to hang onto power by any means necessary, with cynical interventions by the bourgeois media and state only too glad to help the left commit suicide. We want to see the membership of the party wrest it from the its present inept and bureaucratic leadership, and put it at the front ranks of a powerful united front that can organise the crucial upcoming struggles against Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and their government of social wreckers.

If SWP members want to save their organisation from ruin by creating a democratic structure that ensures the rights of members to have their complaints and grievances taken seriously, and to organise to change the politics and leadership of the party then – as the opposition already says – an emergency conference must be convened. It must be prepared by discussion of all the disputed issues in branches as well as districts, and delegates must be elected that truly reflect the balance of opinion.

Only if a conference overhauls the democratic structures will the membership be enabled to determine the way forward for the SWP. Obviously a fresh investigation will be needed into all the rape and sexual harassment allegations. The establishment of the rights of women to caucus within the party at every level would enormously help this and help prevent recurrences of abuses.

But the most solid political basis for putting the SWP on course to be a major factor in building a revolutionary party would be for it to undertake a democratic process of discussing and drafting of a programme. This could best be done in the context of a unity initiative with the other organisations on the left.

“Only a correct policy can guarantee a healthy party regime. Before a conference, when the problem is one of formulating a political line for the next period, democracy triumphs over centralism. When the problem is political action, centralism subordinates democracy to itself. Democracy again asserts its rights when the party feels the need to examine critically its own actions. The equilibrium between democracy and centralism establishes itself in the actual struggle, at moments it is violated and then again re-established. Neither do I think that I can give such a formula on democratic centralism that “once and for all” would eliminate misunderstandings and false interpretations. A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions.”

L. Trotsky: On Democratic Centralism and the Regime (1937)

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