How the SWP Works

Brilliant article by “SovietGoonBoy” (I was half way through before I realised who must have written it)

The SWP crisis: some reflections

extract:

there are peculiar features of the SWP that are worth drawing out, not least because SWP discourse has a long history of not wanting to discuss internal party structures. This (at least in the self-serving reasoning of the CC) is because the structure of the party is a distraction from what’s going on in the real world. One notices the same argument being dragged out again in the current crisis, which is really dumb when the SWP’s disciplinary processes are the reason why real-world allies are now shunning the party. It is important to reaffirm that the regime question is a political question.

Trying to anatomise the SWP’s mode of organisation is a seriously difficult task. It’s not like, for instance, the Socialist Party’s replication of the structures of the official labour movement, complete with its plethora of subcommittees and working groups, and fairly well-defined pecking order based on length of service. By contrast, the SWP’s informal, semi-anarchist style almost defeats analysis. You really need to be a member for quite a few years to get a sense of how it actually functions. This informality, of course, suits the leadership right down to the ground, because it’s much harder to hold anyone to account. And, if public choice theory has taught us anything, it’s that a non-profit bureaucracy can be every bit as self-serving as a corporation.

One of the most common misconceptions about the SWP is that the leadership is obsessed with imposing ideological conformity. No, it really isn’t – though holding a dissenting view may cause you to be mistrusted, as long as you don’t challenge the CC’s authority you can survive in the party for many years. The key point – and this is slightly problematic for a revolutionary party supposed to be made up of society’s rebels – is that the SWP has developed a very efficient system for rendering the members docile. I would say this was deliberate, but if Cliff had designed things this way they certainly wouldn’t have worked as effectively as they do.

The apparat

Formally, annual conference is the supreme authority. In practice, there’s no way to challenge the CC outside of conference, which makes it very difficult for conference to hold the CC to account. This is reinforced by the ban on factional activity except in the prescribed pre-conference discussion period (the beginning of which is often marked by expulsions for factionalism, pour encourager les autres) and the use of the slate system to elect the CC, which effectively means the outgoing CC re-appoints itself (with one or two personnel changes for reasons that are not made clear to delegates). So the leadership does tend to become a self-perpetuating clique.

Now, if the SWP has a grandiose self-image – remember that this is an organisation of a few thousand which aspires to overthrow every government in the world – this is even more concentrated at the top, in the CC and the surrounding layers of senior cadre (we might borrow from Orwell and call them the Inner Party). This is where you find the talk about “interventionist leadership”, which views the party leaders as chess players moving their pawns around. Cliff, for all his faults, managed to temper this attitude with self-deprecating humour; his successors less so. One recalls Alex Callinicos’ great-grandfather Lord Acton, who had a good saying about power.

And then there’s the full-time apparat built up over the organisation’s 60-year existence. As Kevin Crane puts it:

The SWP centre is a truly bizarre institution that many SWP members, particularly those outside London, quite simply know nothing about. The SWP’s 2,500 or so subs-paying members pay for the payroll of dozens of people, mostly to do work which other organisations (including most of the SWP sister groups in other nation-states) devolve to volunteer activity by regular members. The number of journalists employed on its weekly paper is something like double the full-time staff of a typical local weekly with a higher circulation. Bureaucracy, sadly, is self-justifying: there are fifteen people, more or less, paid to produce and distribute the party’s publications, and this tends to outclass any debate about the role of those publications in political activity.

There is team of people building and promoting meetings on behalf of the membership and there are even people solely gathering money. These teams exist and, naturally, have to justify their existence, so they are continually forced to act as substitutionists for activity that, in a party of leaders, one should really hope would be done by lay members. And, as branches have become less and less central to SWP members’ lives over the years and played less and less of an organisational role, it has become progressively ever more detached and bastardised from its roots. It has become the Vatican City-State of the party and is convinced, like all bureaucracies, that it must expand to meet its expanding needs.  It also, like all bureaucracies, has the organisation, time and resources to put its views across and to stifle points of view that do not suit its needs.

That’s the centre. Add on to that the full-time district organisers, appointed by the CC and fiercely loyal to it, who exercise almost feudal dominance in their areas, and usually don’t contribute much that couldn’t be done by lay members. Your district might luck out and get a really good one, but then we come to the question of who organises the organisers, for he is the man who sets the tone. For many years that was Chris Bambery, whose style of man-management could be fairly described as draconian; he was later replaced by Martin Smith, who was arguably worse. The system of appointment positively encourages brown-nosing of those above and casual brutality towards those below. And not merely among party workers; young recruits who aspire to be party workers are acculturated into these attitudes.

This is not, incidentally, unique to the British SWP – the US SWP, which parallels it in some ways, developed an enormous bureaucracy on the back of a commercial income beyond the members’ subs, and which in turn provided the material base for Jack Barnes and his camarilla to take it over and turn the party into its opposite.

Add in other elements of party life, such as the CC’s operation of cabinet responsibility, where they all show a united face to the membership on every issue (for instance, they were unanimous in support of John Rees, until they dumped him) and an interpretation of democratic centralism that expects members, as a matter of discipline, to pretend to agree with positions they don’t believe in… in this context, you can see why rational ignorance begins to look like a viable strategy for the rank-and-filer.

This may be just about forgivable if the party was really good at what it did – an “instrument of steel” like the old Communist Party. But it isn’t.

But you should read the whole thing here: http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/the-swp-crisis-some-reflections/

27 comments on “How the SWP Works

  1. Richard on said:

    Well done Splinty, we’ve all been waiting for your ‘Intervention’ into the farago.

  2. China Mieville is not a SWP figurehead. That’s like saying Kenny Everett was a leading member of the Tory Party in the 1980s.

  3. No marxist will shed any tears over the demise of the SWP. For thirty years or more it has been a pile of anti socialist shite. However, unfortunately, many useful comrades have been trapped inside its bureaucratic anti working class structure and thus a democratic revolt by a section of its membership should be welcome to all socialists. We have to be able to do better. The self perpetuating bureaucratic party elite has to be removed and a democratic structure built. A structure which is habitable for working class rebels. The need for a real democratic socialist party with an adequate socialist program is increasingly obvious

    sandy

  4. We dont get any numbers as to how many are full timers?

    The WRP had at one stage 92 fulltimers and quite a few buildings with a number of bookshops.

    It became a party in name as a few thousand members does not a party make and the membership could not sustain the overblown bureaucracy and a daily paper that was left at train stations to rot or forced onto members to purchase.

    Without its perpetual turnover of students the SWP (as many student societies voted against the leadership for a re-call conference) will continue in its decline and probably end up as many groups as within it are many careerists who once they lose fear of the ‘centre’ will go in all sorts of directions, as they are already.

    The SWP may actually allready be living beyond its financial means? The question is whether it has now passed its political sell by date…

  5. “the Socialist Party’s replication of the structures of the official labour movement, complete with its plethora of subcommittees and working groups”

    can someone elaborate on this and explain the differences and similarities in structure of both sp and swp, as well as other ‘leninist’ groupings?

    cheers

    jay

  6. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    So Andy, if I were to guess you think this article is by GG, and I don’t mean George Galloway, would I be on the right track?

    #2,3 I see that link has been already taken down! Has the SWP CC really spread a smear about China Mieville and others too vile to last long even on the “dark side of the internet”?!

  7. Sell, sell, sell, promote self.. on said:

    Marxist Lenonist: So Andy, if I were to guess you think this article is by GG, and I don’t mean George Galloway, would I be on the right track?#2,3 I see that link has been already taken down! Has the SWP CC really spread a smear about China Mieville and others too vile to last long even on the “dark side of the internet”?!

    No way is it the other GG – it is too well written.

  8. I’ve been quite impressed with the fierce defiance shown by the SWP student oppositionists. They seem to be a mile away from the stereo-type SWP student wadical I once mocked as a serious SPer. While it looks like they will be driven off the SWP ship quite briskly now, I hope they show the same tenacity in sticking together.

  9. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #10,12 Well I’m glad it seems not to be the other GG, I don’t know Splinty’s record in so much detail but it can’t really be worse. It was the attack on Mike Gonzalez (of whose work on Latin America I’m no fan!) for quite rightly not agreeing with the bizzare “minute” used by the News of the World and the SSP cult leadership to put Sheridan in jail, into an otherwise very good dissection of the SWP. Leaving the SWP and criticising its ossified leadership was one of the few good things the other GG ever did imho, the problem was he’s just jumped from one cult to another…

    #11 I quite agree, I was just noting that the site linked to was already down, which perhaps may be because it was extraordinarily scurrilous. And the hypocrisy (a running trait of theirs I know) of the SWP regime loyalists tomoan about the dark side of the internet and then presumably be the ones to spread theses rumours (whatever they may have been, as I never saw them!)

  10. Marxist Lenonist: It was the attack on Mike Gonzalez (of whose work on Latin America I’m no fan!) for quite rightly not agreeing with the bizzare “minute” used by the News of the World and the SSP cult leadership to put Sheridan in jail, into an otherwise very good dissection of the SWP.

    I think you read too much into that. The SSP should have suspeneded standing orders and not minuted that section; but minuting meetings is a good idea generally. The SWP just never does.

  11. Marxist Lenonist: SWP regime loyalists tomoan about the dark side of the internet and then presumably be the ones to spread theses rumours (whatever they may have been, as I never saw them!)

    Well SU has been subject to persistent attempted Denial of Service attacks recently, trying to bring us down. coincidence?

  12. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #18 Thats probaly right. And of course those particular minutes may well be massively innacurate in any case…

    #19 “coincidence?” Somehow I doubt it…

  13. Marxist Lenonist: And of course those particular minutes may well be massively innacurate in any case…

    I am not sure it is correct to describe them as minutes, as I don’t think they were ever voted on for accuracy and approved at a subsequent quorate meeting.

    They were just draft notes,.

  14. Andy Newman: Well SU has been subject to persistent attempted Denial of Service attacks recently, trying to bring us down. coincidence?

    It’s usually the Greys behind that kind of thing. I generally find that wearing a collinder covered in tin-foil solves the problem. It also makes for an interesting talking point down the pub.

  15. andy Newman,

    So they got rid of the printshop?
    200 fulltimers in an organisation of 2,500 members sounds over the top taking into account they only produce a weekly, half of which comes off the media anyway and is rather basic.

    There will be a financial root to this crisis and the attempt at keeping the show going may actually have the opposite effect of blowing it apart.

    The allegations regarding the woman in question worked at the centre and the percentage of division in the voting shows that they are split but that the factins are still fighting for their corner?

    If the Editor of the SW voted against the DC report then that means the division goes right into the centre of the organisation which would imply there will be a scramble for the leftovers and we should wait under the circumstances a selling off of whatever remains as normally happens in every bust up until there is nothing much left…

  16. jay blackwood: I generally find that wearing a collinder covered in tin-foil solves the problem. It also makes for an interesting talking point down the pub.

    We can prove we have been subject of DOS attacks. Given some of the tricks we know they got up to in the Respect split, it wouldn’t be that suprising.

  17. Manzil on said:

    jay blackwood: It’s usually the Greys behind that kind of thing. I generally find that wearing a collinder covered in tin-foil solves the problem. It also makes for an interesting talking point down the pub.

    Presumably the Reds will be along the fight to Greys soon enough.

    (Posadas Lives!)

    That’s shitty if there have been DOS attacks, though. Bit OTT if it is to do with this. How often? You’re sure no one just keeps leaving a hot mug of coffee on top of the server? (That’s how tech works, yeah?)