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