The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is not the first organisation in the British left to undergo a crisis over perceived abuses of power, and members criticising the lack of internal democracy. Evan Smith has provided a great service by posting up a brief but detailed account of the events of the 1957 Special Congress of the Communist Party (CPGB), called to discuss the fallout from Soviet invasion of Hungary in the previous year, and the growing awareness in the party’s ranks of the crimes of Stalin. I strongly recommend you read the whole article. Central to the debate was an internal commission to discuss the workings of “democratic centralism”.
As Evan explains:
On May 19 , the Executive Committee published the statement in the [the Party's weekly] World News that acknowledged the ‘abuses and grave injustices’ of the Stalin era, but offered no further probing into the experience of the Soviet Union or the People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe (MacEwen, 1976: 27). The EC conceded the need for further investigation into the Party’s internal democracy and announced the creation of two Commissions – the Commission on ‘The British Road to Socialism’ and the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy. … …
The Commission on Inner-Party Democracy consisted of fifteen members, ten of whom were full-time salaried Party officials and five of them members of the Executive Committee. Four of the other five members were known to be critical of the Party leadership, which included Historians’ Group member, Christopher Hill. The others were Malcolm MacEwen, the Features Editor of the Daily Worker Kevin Halpin, a vehicle inspector and Briggs Factory Branch Secretary, and Peter Cadogan and Joe Cheek, who were both teachers. Control of the Commission was shared between the chairman, John Mahon, an ‘inflexible Party functionary with limited imagination’, and Betty Reid from the Central Organisation Department
The operation of the commission was flawed, because its remit was disputed, and it proceeded by exchange of written papers, which encouraged polarisation between majority (loyalist) and minority (reformist) positions, resulting in two seperate reports. The differing perspectives also reflected how these two groups saw the effectiveness of the CP, and how large they preceived the crisis to be.
In fact the crisis was acute:
On February 13, 1957, the CPGB’s Central Organisation Department announced the membership of the Party as 25,570, down from 33,095 in February 1956 (World News, 23 February, 1957). Hyman Levy and Christopher Hill reminded the Party Congress of the loss of over 7,000 members, which the Executive Committee member Mick Bennett had described as a ‘handful’ (World News, 18 May, 1957). Hill replied, ‘If three or four more handfuls like that went there would be no Party left… It is criminally frivolous to be treating this flippantly’. The Party leadership tried to portray the mass exodus of members as ‘a revolt of the intellectuals’ and the ‘revisionists’
The accurate occupational composition of the members that left between February 1956 and February 1958 is not known, although there is enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that a large number of industrial workers left the Party as well as the intellectuals.
The leadership was contemptuous of those who had left:
Those who had left the Party were described by Andrew Rothstein as ‘groups of backboneless and spineless intellectuals who have turned in upon their own emotions and frustrations’ (Cited in, Beckett, 1995: 137). The ‘revisionists’ were seen by the Party leadership to have created a non-Marxist and non-class based assessment that owed more to bourgeois liberalism, while affiliating themselves with Marxism. In Marxism Today in February 1958, James Klugmann still declared that ‘revisionism’ was ‘the main danger in the international Communist movement’. Klugmann wrote that the Twentieth Congress had revealed ‘profound mistakes’, but some ‘confused the mistakes with the principles’ of Marxism-Leninism and ‘in a moment of half-panic began to throw out the principles’. Those who had left the Party had ‘lost their socialist integrity’ and produced an ‘emasculated Marxism’ reduced to a form of ‘reformism and liberalism’.
The majority were also adamant that their verion of “democratic centralism” was justified by the need to the CP to be an interventionist party, whereas they believed that factions and debate would weaken their resolve, and effectiveness:
The Majority Report perpetuated the official line that the Stalinist ‘cult of the individual’ was not the result of democratic centralism, but a ‘violation of the practices of democratic centralism’ (Pelling, 1975: 177). The serious error of ‘too general an emphasis on centralism and an insufficient emphasis on democracy’ had resulted in ‘not enough being done to bring the membership into the discussion of Party problems’ and the failure to ‘take sufficient practical measures to build strong Party branches’ (Cited in, Laybourn & Murphy, 1999: 152). The Majority Report’s recommendations to further the growth of Party democracy were minimal, essentially recommending that members be consulted ‘wherever possible’ by the Executive Committee before deciding new policy, along with for the right of members to express contending views in Party branches and press and the right to challenge the ‘recommended list’ of the electoral system on the floor of Party Congress. Most importantly, the Majority conceded that more discussion should be given in the Party press and a theoretical journal (which later became Marxism Today) should be published (MacEwen, 1976: 39). Although this right to discussion, as Pelling (1975: 178) wrote, did not mean the ‘freedom to advocate ideas hostile to the interests of the working class and contrary to the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism’. The Majority Report, presented by John Mahon (1957: 45), argued that democratic centralism ensured that the Party adhered to the ideals of Marxism-Leninism and offered unity in the class struggle because it did not ‘tolerate alien ideology in its ranks.’
Even before the commission met, its chair John Mahon, had written in World News on September 1 1956 that, ‘Experience shows that the method of organisation known as democratic centralism is the only one through which this struggle can be effectively carried through’.
Party officials … believed that democratic centralism was a principle to be adhered to and stated in a draft [to the commission] on democratic centralism that it was the individual member’s duty ‘to accept the majority decision [of the Party organisation] and carry out to the full the policy of the Party’ (Cited in, MacEwen, 1976: 33). Once ‘the line’ had been decided by the Party leadership, discussion among members must have stopped, although Party policy was in many cases not … discussed, with ‘the line’ already determined by the Political or Executive Committees (MacEwen, 1991: 197). MacEwen’s suggestion to the Commission that members who disagree with … majority decisions should be allowed to ‘retain all their rights of discussion and criticism under the Party rules’, and that these rights did not interfere with the ‘spirit of class solidarity and party loyalty’, was rejected by the majority.
John Mahon’s report on inner-party democracy (1957: 45) stated, ‘factional activity of any kind is not permitted because it destroys the unity of the Party.’
The Minority arged that “The crimes of the Stalin era were directly attributed to the ‘iron discipline’ inherent in democratic centralism, stating ‘it must be presumed that the enormous power concentrated in the hands of a very small leadership by the rules of democratic centralism facilitated the assumption of dictatorial power’ (MacEwen, 1976: 35).”
The effective leader of the Minority was Chritopher Hill, a major intellectual figure.
Hill argued in the World News (May 18, 1957), [that the Majority Report] perpetuated the ‘cosy world of illusion’ that suggested that the principles of democratic centralism could be adhered to with a ‘little tinkering’. He criticised the Majority Report for failing to critically analyse the problems of democratic centralism, including the lack of serious enquiry into criticisms from the branches and individuals, how the control of the Party press was exercised and the ‘self-perpetuating leadership’ that dominated the election of the Executive Committee. The Majority Report was ‘slogan-shouting’ and not a serious historical analysis of the facts, with Hill announcing in the World News, ‘We shall get nowhere in the long run if we base our policy on what we should like the facts to be, and not on what they are’.
The Minority Report did not dismiss democratic centralism out of hand, and argued that in a practical sense, just as in the trade unions, some degree of democratic centralism was needed, but proposed that while accepting the ‘broad principles of democracy and of centralism as the basis of Party organisation’, there had to be a ‘proper balance between the two’ (MacEwen, 1976: 40). The Minority Report made several proposals, among the most significant were:
the right of Party members to meet with others before Congress to discuss political questions or prepare political statements, provided notice was given to the district committees
recognition of the rights of individuals or groups to publish matter independently and to circulate it to branches;..
the recommended list to be abolished; (Cited in, MacEwen, 1976: 40).
However, the majority were triumphant. A Pyrrhic victory for the bureaucratic leadership, who rejoiced in their own self-belief that they were the personification of socialism itself, but were sowing the seeds of future crises and disillusionment.
‘Even if the party membership were to be reduced to nought,’ Hyman Levy wrote in The New Statesman (27 April, 1957), the leadership ‘would still remain The Party’.