Leadership, Membership and Democracy in the Revolutionary Party

by Neil Davidson
from SWP Pre-conference Internal Bulletin 2008. #3.

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) a trainee guardian angel gives suicidal small Savings and Loans owner George Bailey the opportunity to see what life would have been like in the town of Bedford Falls if he had never existed. What he sees is so shocking, so bleak, that he begins to understand the significance of his own contribution to avoiding this nightmare alternative future. Thus re-inspired, he abandons all thoughts of self-immolation and, supported by members of the community he has lived among and helped for so many years, he thwarts the plans of the evil millionaire Mr Potter to ruin him and take over the town in the interests of The Bank–a plot device which, given the hatred currently directed against finance capital, will probably help ensure this much-loved film’s popularity with a new generation of viewers.

What would British society be like if the SWP had never existed? What would we see if the guardian angel of revolutionary parties could show us a United Kingdom where the ship bearing Ygael Gluckstein to these shores in 1946 had sunk with all on board? Would it be any different? Attempts to credit our organisation with a general influence over events (as opposed to, say, the outcome of individual strikes) risks the danger of sounding bombastic and self-aggrandising, characteristics we rightly deride in other sections of the left. Nevertheless, while retaining an appropriate sense of proportion, a case can be made. Above all, the two great campaigning organisations which we initiated and sustained, the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), were interventions which actually changed social and political conditions for the better, by helping to marginalise the fascist threat, combat the broader racism in British society and integrate Muslims into political life. Both are models of how to successfully apply what the late Duncan Hallas used to call the “spirit” of the united front tactic in situations of real urgency. Both are a standing rebuke to ignorant accusations of “economism” to which we are regularly subjected by sectarians.

Testimony to the impact of these initiatives is easy enough to find. Reporting on a memorial meeting for SWP member David Widgery in 1992, Paul Foot quoted the comments of Darcus Howe, who “said he had fathered five children in Britain. The first four had grown up angry, fighting forever against the racism all round them. The fifth child, he said, had grown up ‘black in ease’. Darcus attributed her ‘space’ to the Anti-Nazi League in general and to David Widgery in particular”. The editor of Race and Class, journal of the Institute of Race Relations, noted recently that for some politicised British Muslims at least, an important factor in their move away from “’pie in the sky’ debates on the Islamic state” was “the process of working with the Left in the anti-war movement”, which undercut the arguments of Islamist organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir that this kind of cooperation is prohibited by the Koran: “The role of the anti-war movement and the coalitions it fostered between Islamists and the Left have obviously been central to this dynamic and given a wide range of Muslim groups a level of confidence to speak out on issues such as civil rights and foreign policy, despite the fear of being associated with terrorism.” We have much to learn from the way French workers and students have resisted neoliberal attacks on working conditions and social welfare, but we have only to contrast the trajectory of the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles in Britain with those in France to understand what the absence of a party like the SWP can mean: a fascist leader with enough support to stand as a Presidential candidate, anti-war demonstrations in which Muslims and the Left march separately, and a set of legal restrictions on Muslims extending to prohibitions on wearing the hijab by female school students.

But our impact has not been limited to united front activity. Most recently, we have shown our ability to respond directly to a dramatic change in economic conditions. When the financial collapse occurred in September the SWP was certainly not the only organisation on the left to explain what had happened in other than Keynesian terms, but it was the only one able to raise slogans which went beyond abstract denunciations of capitalism and propose concrete demands around which to mobilise, and it was alone in fielding a body of activists large and capable enough to carry both our explanations and demands into the streets, workplaces and universities. This in turn reflects the fact that the SWP is not only the largest revolutionary party in Britain; it is, for all practical purposes, the only one. What we do matters and the responsibility that imposes upon us, particularly in conditions of renewed economic crisis, is therefore very great indeed.

However, if we are to increase our influence to the extent that our ideas deserve and the situation requires, then we must also face some inconvenient facts and subject ourselves some unwelcome self-criticism. As Georg Lukacs wrote in the mid-1920s, self-criticism becomes important when “the actions of the party, at any given moment were not on the same level as might have been objectively possible in the given situation. In examining the causes of this discrepancy in level between actual activity and its concrete and objective possibility, one must not stick simply to establishing the objective cause, for such objectivism…looks, at best, like fatalism. Examination of the causes of a mistake is, on the contrary, directed towards the eradication of the causes.”

Limits to growth?
The problem is not that the SWP has failed to make a revolution in Britain. Revolutionary parties can help develop consciousness and organisation among the working class, and are necessary to provide political leadership in a revolutionary situation; but for a revolutionary situation to become a “concrete and objective possibility” depends on the capitalist crisis (which is not only economic, but expressed through war, environmental collapse, and so on) and the mass activity of the working class in response, neither of which are in our gift.

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”. According to Hallas, the party at that time consisted of between 3,000 and 4,000 members. The first pre-conference bulletin this year, over three decades later, says we have 6,155 registered members and 2,000 ‘unregistered members’, defined as ‘comrades that have not returned a re-registration form to the centre for two years’. The Orwellian concept of an “un-registered member” suggests the level of self-delusion involved here: we should obviously try to re-recruit members who have left, but to pretend that they currently remain members is to assume an outcome which has still to be achieved. We have recently become aware of the extent to which the bourgeoisie rely on fictitious capital; revolutionary organisations have nothing to gain relying on fictitious members.

At best then, we have grown between two and three thousand members in the last thirty years. Expressed in percentage terms (an increase of between 50% and 100%) this sounds more impressive, but it is important to retain a sense of proportion. We have greater forces than the rest of the British revolutionary or even radical left added together, as indeed we did in 1977; but if our ambition is to build a mass party, then we are no nearer to doing so in real terms, particularly given the events that have taken place and the movements that have arisen over the last decade. In fact, our period of biggest membership growth, when we temporarily succeeded in pushing membership up towards 10,000, took place in the mid-1990s before either the election of New Labour or the emergence of the movement for alternative globalisation in Seattle. Peter Sedgwick, a talented comrade who regrettably opposed the transition from IS to the SWP, once noted the difficulty of retaining members for any socialist project: “It was possible to think, ‘All those marvellous young people’ at the first, second or even third Aldermaston or Young Socialist march, but by the seventh or ninth, when it was obvious that these were different young people each time, the effect was less rejuvenating.” And this, in a sense, has been our problem. A blood transfusion may keep a patient alive, but if they are simultaneously haemorrhaging the procedure simply postpones death rather than restores health. Each wave of recruits has left embedded new layers of comrades, but many more have passed through our ranks. Had we had retained even half of the socialists who did so over the last thirty years we would now have an organisation several tens of thousands strong. Our inability to retain members involves a greater structural problem than can be explained by, for example, a failure to persuade comrades to pay their subscriptions by direct debit.

One explanation might be that SWP members are simply inadequate to the task of building a revolutionary party: we are a collection of eccentrics, dilettantes, malcontents and middle-class do-gooders, incapable of relating to workers and the oppressed, and consequently without roots in the class or local communities. I do not intend to dwell on this proposition since, as I outlined in the introduction, it is obviously untrue. Indeed, on of the most frustrating things aspects of our failure to progress is precisely that the party is full of extremely talented individuals. Is it then because our members are too independent, too wilfully individualistic, and have failed or refused to implement Central Committee (CC) instructions? In fact, as I will argue below, we have done the opposite and followed them too closely, even when they have been contradictory or otherwise incoherent.

A second reason would be that the entire aim of building the revolutionary party is a delusional: the working class will simply never attain revolutionary class consciousness, at least in sufficient numbers, to make the project viable. At best, revolutionaries can act as a pressure group, pushing reformists in the trade union movement and social democracy further to the left than they would otherwise be prepared to go by standing fast to the ultimate, but unobtainable goal of total social transformation. At the time of his departure from IS in 1968, Alasdair MacIntyre invoked what he called the “law of diminishing socialist returns” whereby every political formation inevitably behaves further to the right than their formal political position would suggest. As a result, although “those with a revolutionary perspective” were unlikely to make a revolution, only they “are likely to promote genuine left wing reforms”. If socialism was genuinely impossible, was just the “utopia” that Trotsky was prepared to contemplate in the last months of his life, such a role would of course, still, be essential. But I do not accept this argument, nor, I trust, does anyone else reading this, apart from those who are also employed by Special Branch. (Although it is important to understand that many people on the left do not believe in the possibility of a complete socialist transformation of society and consequently regard the SWP as essential precisely because they see us playing the role described here.) The experiences of the twentieth century surely put paid to any notion of the inevitability of socialism. Consequently, we do not and cannot know that working class will ultimately be triumphant–that is the “wager” on revolution which many Marxist thinkers have invoked; but we still have good reasons to believe that it is possible and that our actions will be important in helping to bring that possibility about.

A third, and by far the most plausible reason, would be that we have faced a series of temporarily insurmountable objective conditions–not such as to make exponential growth an impossible goal, as in the previous reason, but to hold it within certain limits. There is obviously some truth in this; in particular, the period which we retrospectively identified as ‘the downturn’, beginning around 1975, did make growth extraordinarily difficult for the revolutionary left, as we recognised at the time after much internal debate–not coincidentally, the last such debate the party has conducted. However, since the late eighties at any rate, the Central Committee (CC) has never seriously allowed that any objective conditions can impede the possibilities for party growth. Indeed, comrades suggesting that there might actually be reasons outwith our control for failing to build were denounced for their pessimism, lack of involvement, failure to understand the new mood, inability to see the silver linings in every dark cloud, or whatever. One can accept that conditions have not been uniformly conducive to growth, but clearly the objective circumstances have not posed an insuperable barrier either. As it happens, I think the CC was right most of the time about the opportunities, particularly around the anti-war and alternative globalisation movements, but that merely strengthens my argument. In Julius Caesar, the most explicitly political of all his plays, Shakespeare makes Cassius say: “Men are some time masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Where does the fault lie?

Real and imaginary united fronts “of a special type”
What is our strategy for building the party? In the very early stages of party formation, with membership numbered in tens (as it was for the Socialist Review Group in the early 1950s), then there is no alternative to what Trotsky once called “the primitive accumulation of cadres”. But for most of the subsequent decades we continued to act as if the party could be built simply by adding individual members on an arithmetical basis, even though mass parties have never been built in this way, and certainly not those of the Communist International in its revolutionary period. The failure of this party-building strategy has, I think, now been tacitly recognised by the CC, but not openly discussed, as is usually the case when our practice is in breach of some notionally Leninist theoretical orthodoxy.

What alternatives are there to recruiting ones and twos as the basis for exponential growth? Historically, there have been four possible mechanisms–which can of course be combined–leading to a mass increase in membership, although others can be imagined: merger with several organisations of a comparable size; an influx of members following secession from a mass reformist organisations; affiliation by militants organised in a trans-union rank and file organisation; or collective adherence by elements of a campaign or social movement. None of these are likely to arise without a generalised move the left. None will leave the host organisation unaffected, so that exponential growth almost invariably means the original revolutionary party acts as the nucleus of a new formation, rather than simply undergoes quantitative growth: the Communist Party of Britain (CPGB) was not simply an enlarged British Socialist Party; the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not merely an expanded Spartacus League.

The route the most relevant to us in recent years, at least in England, has been that involving a campaign or social movement, although we have not been at the stage where mass membership was prepared to transfer directly to a revolutionary party without passage through an intermediate political formation. Given the possibilities provided by StWC, we were clearly right to establish Respect with the forces it had mobilised. It was vitally important that the project of establishing an electoral left alternative went beyond shuffling the pack of existing left groups, as both Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA) had done–which is why, incidentally, the latter cannot be regarded as the “forerunner” to Respect in anything other than a chronological sense: Respect was qualitatively different in that it drew on a membership outwith the existing organisations. We were also right, when the crisis of Respect broke, to take the action we did–including, in my opinion, the expulsions–to save what we could of the situation. The problem lies in what happened in between these two points. Respect’s failure was not simply down to a collision between George Galloway’s rampant egoism and his growing pessimism about working class resistance, but to a lack of clarity about what the organisation was for and how it related to our central revolutionary goals. These problems were highlighted by the misguided attempt to brand Respect as a “united front of a special type”, a category which was first applied to the SA by John Rees in 2001 and is still applied to Respect by Alex Callinicos in the most recent issue of International Socialism. Now, the category of “united fronts of a special type” is perfectly valid; indeed, it should be clear that, given the size of our organisation compared to, say, the KPD pre-1933, we will almost inevitably be seeking “united fronts of a special type”, of which both the ANL and StWC are excellent examples. If we leave aside sterile textbook definitions of the united front based on an over-literal interpretation of the model unveiled at the Second Congress of the Communist International (revolutionary party invites larger reformist party to participate in joint activity, etc.), it has two main characteristics.

The first is that it is a coalition of both revolutionary and reformist forces to take action for the achievement of a specific goal, or a restricted set of specific goals, upon which both can agree. Outside of these specific goals the revolutionaries and reformists involved will not agree on broader sets of objectives, other than perhaps some notion of socialism itself, and in the case of groups organised on a confessional basis, like the Muslim Association of Britain, they may not even agree about that. As this suggests, “reformist” in this context does not simply mean “social democrat”, but rather anyone who is not a revolutionary but who is committed to fighting, for example, a specific fascist organisation or a particular war. The goal-directed nature of a united front means that its existence will be time-limited according to how successful it is: goals can of course change in response to events (in the way StWC shifted focus from stopping the Iraq War to bringing it to an end), or be put into semi-hibernation on a “awaken when required” basis (as the ANL was for years); but a permanent united front is a contradiction in terms.

The second is the way in which, during the process of achieving its goals, the revolutionary wing of the united front attempts to win individuals and groups within the reformist one by demonstrating, in practice, the superiority of our ideas, arguments and methods–although this also involves the revolutionaries learning in their turn from others: nothing could more alien to the united front tactic than the grotesque idea of all-knowing revolutionaries coming to enlighten the benighted reformists.

Defined in this way, what I earlier described as the “spirit” of the united front should be the basis of most of our activities, from moving a motion in a trade union branch, to agreeing the tactics on a demonstration, to deciding on the aims of a campaign. Where sectarians seek the point of difference, we seek the point of agreement. Of course, it may not always be possible to find agreement, there are some cases where revolutionaries simply have to stand alone on a point of principle, as our comrades on the PCS National Executive did recently over postponing the Civil Services strike day on 10 November, but these situations should be the exceptions, at least in the current period.

Invoking the spirit of the united front as a general approach does not however mean that every activity we undertake is a united front, in the sense of being an organised coalition. The ten points of the People Not Profit Charter could be the basis for individual united fronts. In relation to point 4 on repossessions and council housing, for example, rather than responding individually to attempted house repossessions, we should consider beginning a united front to systematically oppose all such attempts on the ground (on the model of the anti-poll tax union resistance to poindings and warrant sales) while campaigning politically for the government to take over all such homes and rent them back to the owners, while also demanding the resumption of council house construction. But the Charter itself is a petition, not a united front and to claim otherwise is a form of “concept-stretching” which renders the concept meaningless.

According to a CC contribution to IB2, we have Trotsky’s authority for describing trade unions, workers councils and even the Paris Commune as united fronts, but all this proves is that Lev Davidovitch was as capable of speaking complete rubbish as the rest of us. More seriously–although I don’t have time to pursue the point in detail here–many of these claims were made in periods when Trotsky was trying persuade sceptical comrades of the validity of the united front tactic, and was trying to “normalise” it with examples from historical turning points and analogies with historic class institutions with which his audience would already be familiar. Whatever might be said for this strategy in context, the arguments are of little help now, as moment’s reflection will show. Take the worker’s council or soviet as an example. These are the exact opposite of united fronts. In a united front revolutionaries and reformists agree to put aside their differences in order to concentrate on the achievement one or more key issues upon which they agree; in a worker’s council–and it is important to remember that they are not just instruments of class struggle but instruments of class rule–reformists and revolutionaries debate their differences in order to persuade delegates to endorse one or the other position as a basis for action; the first assumes common agreement by sections of the class on specific issues prior to taking action; the latter is a method of arriving at an agreed position for the class as a whole on every issue. Vague appeals to Trotsky’s authority will not do here: in his more concrete writings he nearly always used specific, restricted examples of how the tactic should be applied, often in relation to the Bolsheviks’ willingness to ally with Kerensky against Kornilov in September 1917. And as Trotsky himself pointed out in this context, “the question is not decided by a quotation, but by means of the correct method”–although I’m prepared to make an exception for this quotation. The specificity of the united front strategy is precisely why the term cannot be applied to Respect, which possessed neither of the characteristics outlined above.

First, to operate as a genuine united front, Respect would have had to focus exclusively on the three key demands of StWC: opposition to war; opposition to Islamophobia; and defence of civil liberties–in effect to act as a ”multiple issues” electoral campaign. But Respect was a political party which, by definition, must seek to intervene across the entire range of political, social and economic issues facing the workers and oppressed groups it wants to influence, from abortion to zero-tolerance policing. The result was predictably unstable and divisive, because the agreement did not exist over many of the fundamental issues with which Respect was faced.

Second, this might not have mattered had we attempted to win the non-SWP membership of Respect to revolutionary positions; but this does not appear to have happened in any consistent way. There were good local experiences, for example in Preston and Leicester, but at the national level, we seem to have taken an instrumental attitude, particularly to Muslim members, involving no real sense of mutual challenge or discussion, simply an unsustainable agreement not to mention certain issues which broke down as soon as the initial momentum of electoral success was spent.

Alex Callinicos claims to have found a precedent for treating Respect as a united front in the US Farmer-Labour Party. There are several reasons why this analogy is neither helpful nor, given the outcome, particularly encouraging, as Alex himself hints in a footnote. First, it was an early example of opportunistic “right” manoeuvring within the overall ultra-left turn taken by the Comintern after the failure of the German Revolution in 1923 and enshrined at the Fifth Congress in July 1924. Touted as a basis for achieving that chimera, a “worker-peasant (or worker-farmer) government” in the USA, it represented in embryonic form the catastrophic centrist position imposed by the Comintern later in the decade in which the British trade union bureaucrats and the Chinese bourgeois nationalists were treated as forces capable of bringing about the socialist revolution. Second, although claimed as an example of united front by the Comintern, it was even less of one than Respect. The American Worker’s Party (as the CPUSA was known at the time), simply entered an existing reformist organisation set up by the Chicago Federation of Labour in 1919 and successfully, if very briefly, succeeded into taking over leadership positions at the annual convention of 1923, leading to the mass departure of many of the native members. But the new national Federated Farmer-Labour Party had essentially the same politics as it Chicago-based predecessor, despite communist leadership. Third, because the revolutionaries had no real base in the new party outside their own ranks, they were themselves overturned by the remainder of the original membership when the more attractive possibility of standing the anti-Communist Robert La Follette as their Presidential candidate presented itself. In short, this episode, rightly described by Hallas as a “comic interlude” based on a “fantasy”, has precisely zero relevance to us today, except possibly in a negative sense. But, like the CC’s appeals to Trotsky in IB2, it is another example of the desperate search for historical precedents to justify a tactical turn which actually requires new thinking.

The project of building a “radical left” organisation, or New Anti-Capitalist Party on the French model, in which the SWP is organisationally distinct and independent but cooperates with other forces to our right, will be essential for building a coherent new left in which we can also grow; on this I agree with Alex. But we need to start thinking now about the nature of such a party, in terms of its composition, possible process of formation, and our relationship to it as a revolutionary component, and not leave it until the next opportunity arises, before conducting yet more improvisations, dignified with the spurious theoretical rational of the united front. A new party will not happen without our participation, but unless we change fundamental aspects of our current approach, there is a danger that it will not happen with our participation either. In effect, we wanted to restrict Respect to being a united front, while the logic of the situation called for building–and many of the other participants thought we were building–a new type of political formation altogether. The key problem is that at least sections of our leadership seem to have no conception of how to work with other forces in situations where they cannot control them, or where the Party might have to make political compromises. And that fact about our external relations tells us something about the kind of internal “guided democracy” that has operated in the SWP for far too long.

One, two, three, many Leninisms
IS first began considered moving to a Leninist model of organisation in response to the inability of the revolutionary left to outflank the Communist Party of France in May-June 1968. Peter Sedgwick sounded a warning note at the time: “The ‘responsible central and local bodies, stable in their composition’ (i.e. the same people get elected) ‘and in their attitude to their political line’ (i.e. they pretend not to change their minds) belong to the traditions of a religious order (the Comintern) breathing the stench of an era of defeat and recession within the international proletariat. That era is not ours.” Sedgwick was right to highlight the dangers of establishing an unchanging leadership incapable of recognising, or at least admitting to its own errors, but wrong that this would come from following the traditions of the Comintern, at least in its revolutionary period. The SWP, to paraphrase the Labour Manifesto of 1945, is a Leninist Party and proud of it: but what kind of Leninist party? We are told that the SWP follows the Bolshevik party model as transmitted to the parties of the Communist International after 1920. In fact, there was no single model.
The Bolsheviks adopted several different organisational forms according to changing circumstances. Lenin famously wrote in 1906 that in order to bring workers into the party, ‘it is necessary for all comrades to devise new forms of organisation by their independent, creative joint efforts. It is impossible to lay down any predetermined standards for this, for we are working in an entirely new field: a knowledge of local conditions and above all the initiative of all Party members must be brought into play. The new form of organisational nucleus of the worker’s party, must be definitely much broader than were the old circles. Apart from this, the new nucleus will most likely have to be a less rigid, more “free”, more “loose” organisation.’ In a commentary on this passage and others like it, Hal Draper argues that there can be “no ‘concept of the party’ taken as a ‘principle’ divorced from time and place. Lenin’s ideas on party organisation, like those of most others, varied depending on conditions, especially such an immense difference in conditions as that between the underground conditions in an autocracy and the conditions of relative political liberty and open organisational opportunity that characterised Russia in the 1905-7 period”.

Nor is it true that by the time the Communist International was established the organisational form of the revolutionary party had been distilled or condensed into formula that could be applied anywhere, anytime, like the ingredients of a packet of soup reconstituted by the addition of water. The Bolsheviks had to ensure that the young and mostly immature Communist Parties had a basic knowledge of organisation and tactics, and this involved imposing a hastily-drafted set of political tests (the ‘21 conditions’) and a rough framework of what the party should look like. According to Pierre Broue, the KPD had around 220,000 dues-paying members in the third quarter of 1922. (Interestingly, the figures based on returns by branches suggested a membership over 100,000 bigger. In the case of the KPD, as in that of the SWP, the dues-paying figures are more reliable.) Whatever the precise figures, it clearly was a mass party. How was it organised? In large localities organisation was based on workplace fractions and subdivided into districts, sub-districts and ultimately “groups of ten” (actually groups of ten to twenty), each member of which ‘belonged to two basis structures, the “group of ten” and the [industrial] fraction’: “The leading members at the higher levels of the Party were appointed by elections conducted on this dual basis. The party’s shop-stewards in the workplaces elected the leaders in the districts, as well as half the members of the executive committees of the local groups, the other half being elected directly at general meetings of local activists which included all the members of the ‘groups of ten’. The executive of the local group appointed in this way invited to all its deliberations, with consultative vote, the leaders of the various fractions, workplace fractions or fractions in mass organisations such as the Communist Youth, Communist women, cooperatives, etc. … At every level, the cadres, whether they were delegated for a particular situation, or responsible for a certain period, were elected and subject to recall at any time by the units which had elected them, whether committees or general meetings, conferences or congresses. In accordance with the Bolshevik principle of democratic centralism, the supreme body of the Party was its Congress, which met at least once a year. The delegates to it were elected on the basis of pre-Congress discussions. In these discussions, different tendencies could confront each other and present their programmes and candidates at the same time. They had very wide freedom to express their differences, including at meetings of local groups in which they had no supporters. In the intervals between Congresses, authority belonged to the Central Committee, which itself was made up of people elected in two different ways. Some were directly elected by the Congress, but had to live where the leadership was resident… The others were also elected by the Congress, but from people nominated from the districts which they represented at the same time as they represented the Party as a whole. In this way, the Central Committee retained some of the features of the federal type of organisation which characterised the Spartacus League. Functionaries and delegates, whatever their functions, were closely dependent on the base which elected them and had the right to recall them, and permanent Party workers were never in the majority in the Executive organs outside the Central Committee.”

As should be obvious from Broue’s description, the organisation of this most important of Communist parties has some similarities to that of ours, but was also considerably more flexible and open–again, in a situation where civil war had recently occurred and where revolutionary opportunities were rightly thought to be expected to be imminent. In some respects, of course, many aspects of our party’s organisation and approach have changed since the early 1980s–the size and number of branches, our attitude to participation in electoral alliances, our willingness to stand for full-time union positions–but not the relationship of the CC to the rest of the party. At the heart of this relationship is the idea that the leadership will debate issues amongst themselves, then decide on a course of action and only then inform the membership what this decision is and what it will involve them in doing–although we are of course then invited to ratify the CC’s decisions at Annual Conference. And this attitude goes all the way down through the devolved nations and districts. In Scotland, for example, after the disintegration of the SSP the local SWP leadership had an essentially closed discussion about whether or not to join Solidarity–an approach for which I bear as much responsibility as anyone else on our Steering Group. The impulse is always to restrict the debate, or even to refuse to admit there is a debate, in case the “wrong” decision gets taken–the “right” one having been decided by us in advance.

The last occasion there was an open split within the CC was over the downturn in the late 1970s and that only because Cliff was in a minority and therefore felt he had the right to take the debate to the membership as a whole. Cliff was correct, both in the action he took and the position he argued, but surely this is not the only occasion in the last thirty years where this kind of debate would have helped us avoid error? More to the point, should the possibility of discussion simply rest on the personal initiative of one or more members of the CC? This leadership model may have been a regrettable necessity during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, but it has been a block to any further growth since, above all since 1999. Why would activists looking for a party to take them beyond trade unionism, single-issue or community campaigning subject themselves to an internal regime which is less democratic than those to which they already belong? The party is organised as a small, revolutionary group with structures and procedures which make it difficult to become anything other than a small, revolutionary group.

The potential problems were identified even before the Leninist turn was complete. In April 1975 John Molyneux complained in this very bulletin of what members regarded as “the high-handed and undemocratic way in which certain important decisions are taken” leading to “disunity, bitterness and splits”. He also proposed an explanation: “the crucial factor I believe is the lack of an established tradition of organised political debate at all levels of the organisation. The branches discuss politics and debate issues, of course, but not in a way that systematically relates to the central strategic concerns of the group and so can contribute to the taking of important decisions. They cannot do this because they are not sufficiently informed on the strategic plans of the leadership or, more importantly, on the reasoning behind differences within the leadership”. We were not, of course, the first party to experience these difficulties. Lukacs highlighted them during the first attempt to build mass revolutionary parties following the Russian Revolution, in a book which I believe may be known to members of the CC: “If the party consists merely of a hierarchy of officials isolated from the mass of ordinary members who are normally given the role of passive onlookers, if the party only occasionally acts as a whole then this will produce in the members a certain indifference composed equally of blind trust and apathy with regard to the day-to-day actions of the leadership. Their criticism will at best be of the post festum variety (at congresses, etc.) which seldom exert any decisive influence on future actions.”

We constantly invoke the democratic freedoms of the Bolshevik Party, but actually have fewer democratic rights than its members did under conditions of autocracy, quasi-feudal barbarism and repression. In 1906, after the temporary reunification of the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, Lenin could write of the structure that emerged: “We were all agreed on the principle of democratic centralism, on guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every party organisation, on recognising that all Party functionaries must be elected, accountable to the party and subject to recall.” (Comrades will note that there is one consistent theme between the Russian experience recounted here and that of the German party noted above: the recall of party officials.) Why is our leadership so anxious to retain a constitution and relationship to the membership which is less democratic than one which was possible during the first Russian Revolution? If we reject theories of the inevitability of oligarchy common to both anarchism and Weberian sociology, then the answer must be political. I think there are two reasons.

The first is that the leadership has to have a deep, although rarely openly expressed fear of a split in the party. At one level this is quite understandable. The history of international Trotskyism is characterised by a disabling fragmentation and division, often over minor doctrinal differences. And even where organisations manage to avoid this, it has often been at the expense of effectively establishing permanent factions with all the potential for political paralysis that involves. The experience of the International Marxist Group in Britain in the 1970s and–to a lesser extent–the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire in France today demonstrates the difficulties that can result. The IS/SWP itself had a debilitating experience of internal factions in the first half of the 1970s at the hands of an open entryist grouping called Worker’s Fight and several “native” oppositions. As I noted in the introduction, the SWP is not simply hegemonic on the British radical left–in the sense that no serious initiative can be attempted without our leadership or at least our participation–it is for all practical purposes the only serious revolutionary organisation left. In these circumstances the consequences of a split would be very serious indeed, as it would threaten the gains that we have made, particularly since any seceding organisation would inevitably have virtually the same theoretical and political positions as the SWP. Unfortunately, the attitude the CC has taken to avoid the problem is to suppress any debate beyond what it deems a reasonable level, which is usually about the practical or technical application of policies which members of the CC have decided among themselves. But this does not lead to the elimination of differences, just to their internalisation, which in turn leads to cynicism, inactivity and ultimately to comrades leaving the organisation. In effect, it produces the very situation it seeks to avoid, except that the lifeblood of the party is not transfused into another organisation, it simply drains away. The long term corrosive effect of this is actually far more debilitating than any open split would be. In the early 1950s the Italian writer Ignazio Silone once joked with Palmiro Togliatti, then leader of the Communist Party of Italy, that so many people had left the international Stalinist movement: “The final struggle will be between the Communists and the ex-Communists’”. This will not be our fate. Many, perhaps most, of our ex-members constitute a pool of individual socialists with politics identical to those of the party, whose talents are not only lost to us, but who very likely add to the general suspicion of our motives and activities by recounting the experiences that led to their departure. Paradoxically, many are also glad that the SWP exists–but simply do want to be part of it.

The second reason is that the SWP was born in a period of defeat, two years into the downturn, and bears all the birthmarks of that experience. The model of revolutionary organisation we developed between 1968 and 1976 was almost immediately elevated into an unalterable orthodoxy. Again, this is understandable at one level. We were operating an intensely hostile environment: industrially, the trade unions were experiencing defeat after defeat; politically, the Labour left initially grew in strength and acted as a pull on revolutionaries, then increasingly capitulated to electoral demands of the right; intellectually, the tone was set by postmodernism and the identity politics which were its popular manifestation. In these circumstances an essentially defensive posture, which aimed to preserve the organisational and theoretical integrity of the party, became our default position except in the infrequent irruptions of class struggle, above all in the Miner’s Strike, which characterised the period. We still cling to an organisational model established in a period that period is long over.

Fears of a split in the organisation on the one hand and of malign external influences on the other have apparently led the leadership to believe that the membership are incapable of making decisions about the direction of the party–actually making decisions, I mean, not simply ratifying them in the manner described by Lukacs. One of Cliff’s most unhelpful contributions to political theory is the concept of “the organised distrust of the members by the centre”–a position I found so shocking the first time it was confided to me during the Miner’s Strike I assumed the speaker (a local NC member long since departed) was joking: alas not. I am not of course suggesting that every single decision has to be put to a referendum of the entire membership. Apart from being unworkable, it is also unnecessary: the party leadership has to make day-to-day judgements and take day-to-day decisions. But large-scale strategic decisions–say over our response to long-signalled legislation, like the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland during 1989, or the establishment of a new political formation, like the launch of Respect in England during 2004, required a fundamental consideration by the entire party which they did not receive. The answer to complaints of this sort is usually twofold.

One is the argument from effectiveness, that the CC generally gets it right so any concerns about its judgement is simply “making a fetish of democracy”, or some such formulation. Unfortunately, as we have seen in relation to the cases mentioned above, nearly 20 years apart, the CC does not always get it right. Nor, when it was increasingly apparent to comrades on the ground that our positions involved huge problems, was action taken, except to denounce those trying to point out the facts. Although in the first case at least, the error of assuming that resistance to the Poll Tax would be trade union-based was eventually acknowledged and the position corrected, there was no assessment of what had led to the wrong decision being taken. And in the case of Respect, the debacle was simply put down to contingent factors outwith our control. CC members come and go, of course, and occasionally someone is made a scapegoat for particularly egregious failure (usually because they have become too enthusiastic for a policy just at the point when its failure is becoming apparent), but there is never any overall accounting or accountability, and attempts to secure it are generally deflected by exhortations not to dwell on the past, not to pick at old wounds, not to be inward looking–because, after all comrades, there are always new demonstrations to be organised, public meetings to be arranged, papers to be sold: move on, get over it. We never make mistakes.

The other argument is that, if comrades are unhappy with the role of the CC, its membership can be changed at conference. But this is virtually impossible, not merely because of the stage-managed nature of conference, but because there is no obvious leadership in waiting capable of challenging the CC. Of course, a potential national leadership does exist out in the country–indeed, if it did not, and there were really no cadres who could possibly take over from the core of the CC that has been in place since the early 1980s, then we would have utterly failed in one of our key tasks, which is surely to develop such a leadership. The problem is rather that they are generally operating in isolation from each other, have few means of making themselves known at a national level and are rarely consciously developed. In fact, with very few exceptions, most of the comrades who have been invited to join the CC since the early 1980s have been student or district organisers–in other words they are drawn from the ranks of the party’s paid officials, whose jobs had previously been to relay the views of the leadership to the members. Now, the organiser’s job is a necessary, difficult and not particularly well paid one. The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role–or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further. With one exception the entire CC consists of comrades who are paid full-timers, “professional revolutionaries”, all of whom live in the same city. Lukacs again: “Every hierarchy in the party (and while the struggle is raging it is inevitable that there should be a hierarchy), must be based on the suitability of certain talents for the objective requirements of the particular phase of the struggle. If the revolution leaves one phase behind, it will not be possible to adapt oneself to the exigencies of the new situation merely by changing one’s tactics, or even by changing the form of organisation… what is needed is needed in addition is a reshuffle in the party hierarchy: the selection of personnel must be exactly suited to the new phase of the struggle.” Clearly, some current members of the CC would remain as part of virtually any reconfigured body, but not all. Can there be anything more damaging to the idea of revolutionary leadership than the perception that members of what I call the superior part of the CC occupy a sinecure or permanent fixture, that its members will retain their posts–or some post, at any rate–regardless of what they do or fail to do in the exercise of their duties?

The CC needs to be reorganised, both in structure and composition. The leadership should at the very least, be weighted as much towards those who are actually leading in workplaces, universities, campaigns, communities and intellectual life, as towards party full-timers. It also needs to reflect the different spatial experiences of the class: the rhythms of political life are different now in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales and no decisions about the Britain as a whole can be taken without taking these differences into consideration. (Apart from anything else, this would prevent a repetition of the People before Profit Charter being issued across the UK as a whole with demands that have already been achieved north of the border!)

Understanding the present and preparing for the future
These changes are essential, but others are also required. We urgently need accurate intelligence from the field of battle which reflects the changes that are taking place in British society. In particular, a serious revolutionary strategy can only be based on an accurate assessment of the situation of the working class. Of course, preparation of such an assessment involves knowledge already acquired from ongoing practical intervention as much as from theoretical study, but even direct experience of the struggle has to be interpreted. I believe that an inadequate theoretical framework has prevented us from making the necessary analysis. At the moment, our decisions appear to be based on partial information filtered through a perspective which can envisage the future only as a repetition of the past.

Of course, there is much to be said for tradition and for maintaining positions until they have been decisively proved wrong, rather than light-mindedly abandoning them at the first opportunity. In some respects conservatism can be an under-appreciated revolutionary virtue, particularly in periods of stability. It can, for example, prevent the launching of inadequately thought-out initiatives or the adoption of fashionable stupidities. On the other hand, what we have exhibited for several decades is not simply theoretical conservatism, but a form of scholasticism which, as we have seen, seeks to explain every new phenomenon with reference to an historical analogy or a reference to one of the great Marxists. The prophets of the Old Testament believed that there was nothing new under the sun: we do not agree with them. There are new economic situations, new political formations and new forms of activism which cannot always be explained with reference to the first four Congresses of the Third International, or what Trotsky said (e.g.) to the French Section of the Left Opposition in 1934. Or course we need to be aware of historical parallels and learn from the insights of the Classical Tradition, as I have tried to do in this contribution; but there are limits to how useful this procedure is, particularly when it prevents us seeing where there are breaks, as well as continuities. The search for precedent in every situation is something we should leave to the peculiarities of the English legal system. We are in a situation where precedents are of limited use.

Specifically, I think we were ultimately led astray by the metaphor of “the downturn”. As a means of encapsulating the situation of retreat and demoralisation that the British working class were beginning to undergo in the late 1970s, this was a helpful contribution. The problem was that we then began to see developments entirely in terms of “downturn” or its opposite, “upturn” and this, on the other hand, was not helpful at all. For one thing, downturns and upturns are moments of sharp transition; by definition they have a limited timescale. Most of the history of the British working class cannot easily be allocated to one or the other: moments like 1910-14, 1919 or 1971-4 are highly exceptional. Yet we have been predicting an “upturn” since around 1989. Instead, the major flashpoints have been over the Poll Tax, the Criminal Justice Bill, the BNP, asylum seekers and imperialist war–issues which involved people in responding to attacks on their communities or opposition to geopolitical developments: trade union involvement there certainly was, but trade union action was minimal.

This misreading of the situation was caused by our severe underestimation of the effects of neo-liberalism on the working class, to the point that, until recently, we refused to recognise that it existed. The all-out frontal attacks on the labour movement and working class conditions characteristic of the first stage of neoliberalism largely ceased after the defeat of the Poll Tax. But this was not simply because the ruling class had become more cautious; it was also because the attacks had achieved their basic aim of weakening the ability of trade unions to effectively defend their members. This allowed three developments. One was to ensure that wage costs fell and stayed down, so that the share of profits going to capital was increased. The second was to enable corporate restructuring, the closing of “unproductive” units and the imposition of “the right of managers to manage” within the workplace. The third, and a more long-term tactical consideration, was to assist social democracy adapt to neoliberalism by weakening the main source of countervailing pressure from the broader labour movement. What followed, particularly after 1997, were two more molecular processes. One was to move production to geographical areas with low or non-existent levels of unionisation and prevent the culture of membership from becoming established: there are now areas of the economy, particularly in the private sector where unionisation is simply unknown. The other was the gradual commodification of huge new areas of social life: services which had been free at the point of use now had to be directly paid for; services where costs had previously been subsidised were now set on competitive lines: the naturalisation of the market is not only an ideological phenomenon–it is what people experience in the fabric of their daily lives. These changes have been more difficult to challenge than the earlier onslaughts, precisely because they did not in most cases involve set-piece confrontations, but they have had a cumulative impact on the working class.

Reformism, in the Gramscian sense of contradictory consciousness, is a permanent feature of working class life; but its consolidation or maintenance in political terms as a social democratic consciousness is not. What, for example, are the implications of social democratic organisations like the Labour Party, which used to embody this consciousness, becoming openly committed to capitalism? What are effects on working class expectations of over three decades of “anti-reforms” and the normalisation of market relations in areas where they were unknown even a hundred years ago–in the provision of local services, for example? What opportunities are there for workplace socialisation and unionisation for young people who were denied the opportunity to be exploited even before the financial collapse? Historically, we have argued that they have been swept up either by the economic effects of inter-imperialist war or peacetime economic boom. Are we relishing the thought of the former? Are we expecting the latter? It sometimes appears that while we recognise the existence of capitalist exploitation and oppression, we want to deny that they have any negative effects, that they only produce anger and resistance. But these are not all it produces. A report in The Observer quoted one GMB shop steward at JCB, where the workers recently agreed to accept a pay cut in order to save 322 jobs: “Industrial action is not on the cards. The days of strikes are long gone. No one ever gets their money back. With higher food and fuel bills, losing even a days’ wages is tough.” It also quoted the managing director of the HR consultancy Marshall-James: “People are less likely to go on strike today–they are less politicised, and also maybe more selfish.” This is not all that is going on in the class, but it needs to be explained–and explained without simply relying on those ever-popular, but often deeply ahistorical concepts, “betrayal by the bureaucracy” and “lack of confidence among the membership”.

These comments may sound like an expression of despair. They are not. In fact, I think the conditions are being prepared for major explosions of an entirely unpredictable sort. The argument can be made in both general and particular terms. The general was famously expressed by Lenin in 1920, but is true of any period of imperialist war and economic crisis, including our own: ‘History as a whole, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes. … We do not and cannot know which spark–of all the innumerable sparks that are flying about in all countries as a result of the world economic and political crisis–will kindle the conflagration; we must therefore, with our new and communist principles, set to work to stir up all and sundry, even the oldest, mustiest and seemingly hopeless spheres, for otherwise we shall not be able to cope with our tasks, shall not be comprehensibly prepared…’ As French Marxist Daniel Bensaid once said at Marxism, this approach can be summed up by the notion of readiness: “Ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens.”
But there is also a more specific argument which was well captured by Cliff in 1968: “For decades Marxists used to infer the state of mass consciousness from a few institutional barometers–membership of organisations, readership of papers, etc. The deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations smashed all such barometers to pieces. This explains why there was no way of detecting the imminence of the upheaval in May 1968. And also, more important, it explains the extreme, explosive nature of the events. If the workers in France had been accustomed to participate in the branch life of the trade unions or the Communist Party, these institutions would have served both as an aid and as ballast preventing the rapid uncontrolled spread of the strike movement. The concept of apathy or privatisation is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development–when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed, or closed–apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. … Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organisations, which have shown themselves to be paralysed over the years, are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.” The conditions described by Cliff have deteriorated further, much further in Britain today than they had in France forty years ago and effects are likely to be the same.

What does “readiness” mean in these circumstances? This brings us back to the relationship between the leadership and other members. Gramsci and Togliatti noted in 1926 that a crucial aspect of a revolutionary party was the “capacity of the local organisms and of individual comrades, to confront unforeseen circumstances and take up correct positions even before directives arrive from the leading bodies. It is necessary to combat the form of passivity…which consists in only being able to ‘wait from orders from above.’ The party must be characterised by ‘initiative’ at the base; in other words, the base organs must be able to react immediately to every unforeseen and unexpected situation.” What kind of scenarios are we looking at where “initiative” might be necessary? We are already responding to two immediate consequences of the current crisis. The first is the increase in repossessions and evictions, but I would also add personal bankruptcies, since it is equally vital that these are treated as social issues, not individual tragedies; as I wrote earlier this is the area where the united front is a genuinely relevant tactic. The second is the threat to jobs, as the collapse in bank lending begins to hit the service and manufacturing core of the economy. In both cases we have to argue against the logic of capital and assert the political economy of the working class as an alternative.

But there two other situations for which we should be ready, without being able to predict exactly where explosions are likely to come. One is the likely consequence of the persistence of high youth unemployment in the inner cities and estates, which could result in the type of riots last seen in the early 1980s (something made more likely by the increasingly repressive behaviour of the police and other state agencies), or it could be channelled into racist or fascist scapegoating of minorities: accepting that society is becoming polarised also means recognising that poles tend to come in twos. The other is the opposite situation of people who are in work, but remain un-unionised and here there is a historical precedent which strikes me as being more useful than most. In America during the 1930s the Depression was the backdrop to the re-emergence of trade unionism on an industrial rather than craft basis. These great unionisation movements in the USA during 1930s were motivated by the desire of a second-generation immigrant workforce to participate in a consumerist paradise from which they were excluded by low wages for the previous decade, and which now seemed to be put off again by the economic crisis. Even more important in igniting their resistance was the disciplinary regime of the foremen and pressure of keeping up with the production line. These conditions are quite similar, in terms of internal regime, to those which currently prevail in the great telesales office-factories, the hyper-markets and the financial institutions where, one suspects, things are going to get much tougher for those spared the corporate downsizing. One other aspect of the American experience is of particular importance to us: in each of successful strikes of the mid-thirties, political leadership effectively fell to whichever political organisation of the left was on the ground and had something intelligent to say to the workers–Communists, Trotskyists or the followers of A. J. Muste. We are the only real revolutionary party in Britain, but let us not be so complacent as to imagine that other forces, with superficially plausible arguments and strategies, will not seek to take advantage of a new upsurge, if we are not there to put our arguments.

What Next?
We need to extend our period of internal discussion beyond conference in order to allow for greater debate over both strategy and internal organisation, particularly since the CC has not yet recognised that we have problems in either area. (A conference motion containing a proposal along these lines follows this contribution.) One response to this proposal may be concern that our internal discussions may find their way into the websites and publications of the sectarian left, once rightly described by George Lichtheim as “tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water”. China Mieville and Richard Seymour have already dealt with this point in their timely call for a “culture of discussion” in IB2. An apparently more serious objection will be that the extent of crisis and consequently the urgency of the moment are simply too great to indulge in a debate over internal structures: we have demonstrations and public meetings to build, papers to sell, strikes to organise, and so on. We certainly need to do these things. But it is simply an evasion to argue that we cannot do both. If we have not clarified our ideas and renovated our organisation, then how will we attract the people we meet at these events? If we have not grown substantially over the past thirty years then why do we imagine that we will now, without some change? Simply hoping the depth of the crisis to deliver members to us while we carry on with business as usual, only at a more frenetic pace, is not a serious option. At the beginning and end of the revolutionary period between 1968 and 1975 we held additional conferences to agree the structure of our organisation. If we could find the time to have these considerations then, when the level of struggle was much higher than it is now, we can scarcely pretend that our current situation makes it impossible. If we fail to change, then we will almost certainly survive in some form–but our goal is surely something higher than survival–it is to earn the leadership of the British working class.

Neil Davidson

Motion to conference


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L. D. Trotsky, “For a Worker’s United Front Against Fascism”, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, introduced by Ernest Mandel (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp102-103, 107-108.
Callinicos, “Where is the Radical Left Going?”, p103.
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Ignazio Silone, in A Koestler et al, The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism, with an Introduction by Richard Crossman (London: The Right Book Club, 1951), p118.
Lukacs, “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation”, p336.
Ecclesiastes, 1:9.
Tim Webb, “Workers Reject Strike Weapon”, The Observer, 2 November 2008.
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Daniel Bensaid, “Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!”, International Socialism, first series, 95 (Summer 2002), p77; Lenin Reloaded: towards a Politics of Truth, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), p153. http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj95/bensaid.htm
Tony Cliff, “On Perspectives”, International Socialism, first series, 36 (April/May 1969), p17; In the Thick of Worker’s Struggles, Selected Writings, vol. 2 (London: Bookmarks, 2002), p134;
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105 comments on “Leadership, Membership and Democracy in the Revolutionary Party

  1. Apologies to Neil Davidson. A number of well respected comrades in the wider movement asked for this to be published, and I am doing so in what I regard as the best interests of the socialist movement.

  2. You’re really in trouble now, Andy.

    As for the content, this is impressive stuff. Imagine the state the Left would be in if stuff like this was being debated, on this level, in public – and all year round. (A ‘culture of discussion’ indeed.)

    I still think it’ll end in tears, though.

  3. John Wight on said:

    I stopped reading after the second paragraph and the wild and outrageous claims made with regard to the SWP’s record.

    This illustrates beyond doubt the delusion and fantasy world in which people cocooned within the contraints of a socialist sect are victim. Stop the War is a defeated movement, ANL was a success, but can they legimiately claim all the credit for that? Where were the SWP during the one victory of the working class against the British state since Thatcher came to power in defeating the Poll Tax? They were nowhere.

    This is an organisation which has and continues to try to substitute radical students and the intelligentsia for the working class. Their evangelical and missionary approach to Marxism has led to woefully outrageous and inaccurate readings of material conditions and class consciousness time and again. Like a fish they swim from one short term and short lived campaign to the next, hoping to find a home, before abandoning said campaign and alliances for the next. Whoever hears them discuss the muslim community now, for example, except as small businessmen and a constituency hampered by an attachment to communialism.

    I’m truly shocked by the arrogance and hubris in the first few paragraphs of this document. Marx said it best:

    ‘The development of socialist sects and of the real workers’ movement are in inverse relationship. As long as the sects are historically justified, the working class is not yet ripe to develop as an independent historical movement.’

    There can be no shortcuts. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one mass demonstration in 2003 doesn’t constitute an upsurge in class consciousness. The failure of Stop the War to provide a meaningful challenge to the State vis-a-vis Iraq is best described by former MI6 spy, Peter Wright, who once described the SWP as constituting about as much of a threat to the British state as a pond of ducks.

  4. “I stopped reading after the second paragraph”

    And I stopped reading after that.

    I’d like to compliment Neil on a good piece of work.

  5. A first rate article that one need not agree with in regard to every point made to appreciate. A very encouraging article too that illustrates that the SWP has theoreticians capable of regenerating the organisation. One hopes that it also has the needed forces to rally to his positions and that the leadership majority can respond positively.

  6. ” . . . but it was the only one able to raise slogans which went beyond abstract denunciations of capitalism and propose concrete demands around which to mobilise, and it was alone in fielding a body of activists large and capable enough to carry both our explanations and demands into the streets, workplaces and universities. This in turn reflects the fact that the SWP is not only the largest revolutionary party in Britain; it is, for all practical purposes, the only one. What we do matters and the responsibility that imposes upon us, particularly in conditions of renewed economic crisis, is therefore very great indeed.”

    Feel a bit sleazy reading this document. It is so obviously meant for internal consumption. The passage above is just one of many that indicates that that is the case . . . and it has to be said that the passage above also suggests that the bloke’s living in a bubble.

    It’s Dave Spartish in its pretension and delusion.

  7. To use antifascism as an example of SWP success in the 70s is one thing but not a good idea now

    The BNP seems to be back, with a by-election win 3 weeks ago in Boston, a single vote off another win last week in Sedgefield, and watch out for some bad news (possibly) in a winnable ward for them in Leicestershire on Thursday

    Other than that, pleaed to see some self-analysis by the SWP

  8. Mike Macnair on said:

    Following is something I put on the comments on Splintered Sunrise’s post on Rees’s document: if anything more relevant here, since Neil Davidson’s piece is a whole lot more realistic than Rees’s but still stuck in the frame of the SWP’s illusions.

    If the SWP actually carried the discussion through to its logical conclusions, they could indeed revitalise the whole left. But that would require them to abandon:

    (1) appointment of district organisers from the centre as well as subordination of the branches to the organisers;

    (2) the illusion that they are “the only revolutionary party” and their self-deceptions about the size of their membership; in contrast they would need to accept that they are an organisation on the same scale as the SP, though a lot bigger than the rest of us grouplets;

    (3) the rejection of “permanent factions” and “permanent discussion” and the corresponding illusions (a) that the French LCR is ‘paralysed’ (yeah, really) and (b) that the IMG fell apart because of faction-fighting (in fact, the reverse is true: the IMG lived and grew with ‘permanent’ factions and discussion between 1969 and the early 1980s; it broke up because a large minority (the pro-US SWP faction) came to accept SWP-style views on party democracy, and the John Ross- Redmond O’Neill group made a bloc with them to save their jobs, with the result that sharing an organisation with them came to be intolerable for the rest of the group);

    (4) the attempt to keep internal discussion secret, and

    (5) the converse of (3) and (4), which is the belief that unity in action for limited purposes is only possible if debate on political differences between the participants is at least temporarily suppressed, resulting in lurches like that in Respect (SWP as Galloway fan-club abruptly followed by SWP as Galloway-haters).

    At the moment I see little sign in any of the texts of a real break with any of this stuff.

    This may perhaps be a matter of the political culture making it impossible for SWPers to say in internal discussion “Look, in 1976-77 we embarked on the same path as the WRP before us, that of deceiving ourselves about our own weight; that has driven us increasingly to undermine our own strengths; we have a last chance to get off this path.” If so there is a chance of a positive development.

    Or it may be that SWPers really genuinely believe in their illusions about their place in the world. If so, a WRP-style dissolution or US SWP-style collapse into a much smaller grouplet is already unavoidable.

    I would add to this a single point. Neil Davidson, as a professional historian, should be ashamed of himself on one point. He foists onto Lenin and Trotsky Dimitrov’s conception of the united front from the latter’s speech to the 7th Congress of the Comintern. The sources are all available on Marxist Internet Archive. OK, the SWP has been evolving towards this “official communist” conception since the creation of the ANL. But comrades should be honest about it (that it is a break with “Trotskyite sectarianism”), and this is a a special responsibility of professional historians.

  9. … Socialist Alliance (SA) had done–which is why, incidentally, the latter cannot be regarded as the “forerunner” to Respect in anything other than a chronological sense:

    This brusque dismissal explains a lot. Neil raises the rhetorical question of whether the working class can become a revolutionary force. But when something arises that fires that spark, down comes the Monty Python foot to crush it.

    This wasn’t about “objective conditions”: I witnessed leading members deliberately torpedoing the project.

    If you want to talk “objective conditions”, 1997 saw a wave of hope that the SWP rightly wanted to ride. Their analysis at the time was correct in that we had a window to build a mass movement, that the class would be betrayed by Blair and move rightwards, and we had to offer an alternative.

    We then had Seattle a couple of years later. Conditions weren’t perfect but they were ripe for a serious advance.

    With the SA, the SWP could work with pride in that it was at last uniting the left. It felt great, like a fresh start with trust and respect, and we were getting results — one of the concrete results being the formation of the STWC on the spine of the SA organisation, filling the void left by a moribund CND. And neither was the SWP expected to dilute its politics in this formation.

    Perhaps the SA would have been the organisation to take the class forward. Perhaps it would have had other problems later. We’ll never know because it was strangled in its infancy.

    I don’t fully understand why everyone now ignores the elephant in the room — leading members of the SA DELIBERATELY smashed it up and proceeded to do over socialists. It was nothing to do with “the period”. This is just jargon to take our attention off the decisions being made by real live human beings in charge. I’ve written elsewhere giving chapter and verse describing what happened, and there are plenty of others with their own examples.

    OK, one f’rinstance: Rees dismissed Steve Godward, a strlking firefighter and a fellow member of the SA exec committee who was popular in the organisation and in the media, as “not representing anything”. Not only was the firefighter betrayed, we failed all the striking firefighters, and were exposed as a set-up not to be trusted. Was this “concrete, objective conditions?” Or was it personal whim and caprice by someone with too much power? What’s certain is that personal choices had a political outcome.

    Since then, we’ve seen the same characters emboldened by the cowardice and irrationality around them, doing the same destructive things over and over with no checks and balances. No wonder their actions have become more and more outrageous, and the consequences of these actions progressively more calamitous. It was like watching a child screaming out for boundaries and having total contempt for those who let them get away with it.

    The result is a culture of bullying and naturalised abuse of power.

    If leaders are treating members like chattels, and fronts as their private fiefdoms, then something is wrong at the core.

    A leading cadre told me, “So, ego and self-interest will play a part. So what?” is this still the case?

    Why is this important? Because what happened in the SA set up a pattern that has been repeated to the detriment of the working class. If you don’t tackle how personality flaws and an unhealthy concentration of centralised power are repeatedly crapping up the movement, you don’t have a movement.

  10. Dear Koba on said:


    The destruction of the Socialist Alliance was certainly a significant event, not becasue the SA was unproblematic, but because it was what we actually had, at exactly the moment of opportunity.

    the launch of Respect was always problematic, because mainly the window was already closing, and the manner of the transition from the SA to Respect was disastrously handled, by both the SWP and their ISG bag-carriers (especially Thornett who was as bad as the SWP), to exclude and alienate the activists, many of whom ex-labour left, there were the bricks that any left of labour project would have to be built out of.

  11. Mark Anthony France on said:

    All very interesting…. Jaw Jaw definitely better than War War…..
    I just think the whole of the SWP should ‘liguidate’ itself… into the Campaign for a People’s Woolies… along with every other rag tag and bobtail commie, trot, socialist, democratic socialist, social democrat, green, and most of the lib dems….
    together we work to get 3million signatures in 3months on the People’s Woolies Number 10 Petition… Organise a Million strong demo on Saturday 14th March…. That forces the Nationalisation Under Public Control of 700 High Street Stores…..
    Each Woolies in effect becomes the co-ordinating centre for ‘Dual Power’ and the home of embronic ‘Soviet’ type institutions…. [as well as selling pick and mix and other ‘economic’ activities a bit like a car boot sale/soup kitchen]

    Then all the English Comrades can make up for lost time since the end of the last English Revolution and use the English Woolies as co-ordinating centres for an general strike [Grand National Holiday] on Starting on 23rd April and Running to 1st of May…

    Hopefully, the weather will be nice and we can all in a nice and relaxed fashion set up a new revolutionary party and allied militia mopping up all the newly unemployed youth and giving them a bit of political education, discipline and rudimentary military training [like how to run away from coppers with tazers]

    As for the name for of the new party?? er personally i’d like to avoid ‘Socialist Worker’s Party’
    how about United Peoples Party of the English Revolution [UPPER]
    Then all the English can become part of the “UPPER” CLASS??

    By the Summer we should have about 3million members and 5000 English local Party HQ’s in all the Old Woolies Stores….

    Should be pretty easy to organise a transition to socialism with this degree of weight in Society…. Hegemony shouldn’t be to hard to win.

    or am i being silly?

  12. Mark Anthony France on said:

    Typo error in my last conribution…
    “By the Summer we should have about 3million members and 500 Local English Party HQ’s in all the Old Woolies Stores”[not 5000… because that is just excessive]

    On the Question of “what if’s”
    If the SWP had not been so ‘sectarian’ to the Bennites then just a bit of SWP ‘entrism’ could have swung the 0.4% of the Electoral College Votes needed for Tony Benn to have become the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1981…
    The ‘Longest Suicide Note in History’ might have been condensed a bit and beefed up and Although Labour would have still Lost in 1983 ….. a mass ‘socialist’ left would have been built….
    The LP decisively splits in September ’83 but When Thatcher went for the NUM… the balance of forces may have been more favourable … Instead of defeat. Scargill,Benn, win the strike Thatcher goes and the Socialist Labour Party with 100 MP’s forms a coalition Government with the LP proper to spend North Sea Revenues on massive ecologically sustainable reconstruction of the UK after the ravages of 5 years of Monetrism and Thatcherism….

    None of this happened because the SWP were too nasty to Tony Benn.

  13. interested #12, you can find my overview of the problems, published in Tribune 2003, here:

    There’s more detail at UK Left Network from around this period (2002?), and a fair bit here on SU, especially on the threads concerning last year’s Respect split, but would entail something of a trawl.

    Dear Dear Koba, yes, the window was closing by the time Respect surfaced so there would have been a whole new raft of problems. Although I remain critical of Respect, it was dismaying to see so many leftists being put through the wringer. Again.


  14. What an arrogant prick Davidson is, with the usual outrageous claims about the SWP compared with the clearly clueless rest of us on the Left. This lot haven’t changed and they never will – everybody else knows this apart from the sad deluded Swappies themselves.

  15. Dear Koba on said:

    Interesting point MAF, though a bit flippant in presentation, we will forgive you that just beacseu we love you.

    I don’t think that the SWP had suffiecient weight to have swung it. But certainly the serious place to be in those years was in the Labour Party

  16. “Above all, the two great campaigning organisations which we initiated and sustained, the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and the Stop the War Coalition (StWC), were interventions which actually changed social and political conditions for the better, by helping to marginalise the fascist threat, combat the broader racism in British society and integrate Muslims into political life”

    The SWP and StWC have, of course, done the opposite of ‘integrating Muslims into political life’. Rather, they, together with Galloway, have spread the pernicious, divisive and dangerous lie that Muslims are, and should see themselves, as powerless victims in this country. And in so doing they have jettisoned their claim to the high moral ground on issues of racism, sexism and homosexuality equality, by their willingness to embrace racist, sexist and anti-gay fundamentalists within the Muslim community, for short term electoral gain. gay rights shouldn’t be a shibboleth after all, eh. Something that so many people can never, never forgive them for.

  17. Rather, they, together with Galloway, have spread the pernicious, divisive and dangerous lie that Muslims are, and should see themselves, as powerless victims in this country. Actually, it’s the government and the media (with the approval of such ultra-lefts) who have been trying to make Muslims victims, and persuade them that they are powerless. The success of the StWC has been in persuading large numbers of Muslims of the exact opposite, by constructing a political vehicle in which they could express their hatred of the war alongside the rest of British society. Wasn’t it Orwell who castigated those idiots who couldn’t distinguish between rats and rat-poison?

  18. Was it actually a labour party I cant imagine like this but still try to go in the deep of this issue andkeep posting latest updates and progress about these.

  19. Inigo Montoya on said:

    I knew that as soon as this one went up there’d be howls at the assertion that the SWP is effectively the only revolutionary party in Britain from a few on here, though a fair number of you know it’s true too.

  20. Inigo Montoya on said:

    Oh, and by the way, I think it’s healthy that all of this discussion is taking place outside the ranks of the party. I think it’s just a shame that is has to happen on this site, where most of the posters are, frankly, nuts. I have been enjoying following some of the analysis though, particularly from ex-members.

  21. Irish Mark P on said:

    I can easily identify with the reactions of Doug, Darren and John Wight to this piece. The arrogance, self-delusion and outright lies about the unique strength and importance of the SWP are the kind of thing that would make your teeth hurt if you were to take them too seriously.

    I think however that it’s best to assume that all that arrogant gibberish – which Davidson may or may not personally believe – is primarily there to sweeten the pill. Once you mentally strip out the self-aggrandising nonsense the article has some interesting things to say and is highly and penetratingly critical of the internal regime of the SWP.

    By the way, putting the official paper membership figures here (a little over 6,000) alongside the information from John Rees’ article about attendance at party meetings gives us a very interesting snapshot of the actual size of the SWP. Rees points out that around a sixth of the membership attends aggregates or branch meetings, which would mean in or around 1,000 people.

  22. What’s inspiring about Neil Davidson’s article is both the span (I suppose you’d expect it from a historian) and the quantity of, ‘incidents’ that reinforce the main proposals.

    For me, the argument I find most convincing is the complete breakdown of any feedback mechanisms (ahem, democracy) that could or would inform a shared, “perspective”. The fairly obvious point that with ever-increasing bureaucratic management techniques (Rees’ “professional” leadership) tied to a layer of full time officials and ’employees’, the party cannot sort its arse from its elbow.

    The SWP, currently, doesn’t have a perspective on what it should, could, or might do to strengthen/widen its influence in the British working class, hence the emphasis here and elsewhere (Molyneux) on “flexibility”, “experimentalism” etc.

    Now, replacing the Rees’ led (and CC supported), “Project” is an obvious must, and who would realistically argue *against* flexibility etc? But the fact that the proposal ends with a call for a multi-month sitting of a “democracy commission,” is, in my opinion a recipe for disaster!

    Another, ex-SWP, pal o’ mine made the important point that *if* the mandate for the ‘democracy commission’ is purely technical (the nuts & bolts, the hows) then it’s probably needed. But if it’s simply a new layer of individuals “assigning” positions then it won’t go to the root of the problem the SWP now faces.

    Subordination of full-timers to districts, removal of the slate system (everywhere), and elections for branch leaderships are immediate and vital requirements.

    The paper needs an editor (NOT the current one), the Centre needs an organiser. Apart from that, I can’t see why the rest of the gigantic CC the SWP’s currently saddled with is that big of a deal (culturally, they’d be far better off with a composition less weighted toward the “professionals”).

    The Party has a history of avoiding these issues (bureaucraticism, apolitical technique etc.), but, fortunately for its members, and the rest of us, they can no longer be ignored, and their resolution along the lines ND proposes will do nothing but good for the SWP and consequently, the left in Britain.

  23. 21 chjh: oh please. The StWC wasn’t just, or even primarily, a ‘political vehicle’ in which hatred of the war could be expressed. Primarily, as you well know, for the SWP it was a ‘political vehicle’ to recruit to the SWP. How? By harnessing and encouraging hatred of the war, and attempting to promote left, ‘anti-imperialist’ views through propagandising a misleading narrative purporting to explain it; and that narrative was, deliberatly and cynically, one in which Muslims are victims. SWP and StWC shamefully exploited and encouraged Muslims’ fear and distrust for strategic – recruiting and electoral – purposes, and managed, disastrously, to ally themselves to reactionaries and theocratic bullies in the process.

  24. BarryKade on said:

    Good to see Neil raise many issues that I would also want said out loud. To be honest, I did not think these ideas could be thought, let alone voiced by an active party member! That’s why I left. Their didn’t seem to be a middle ground between enthusiastically carrying out the latest line, or being cast as a pessimistic malcontent and eventually leaving or collapsing into passivity.

    So good luck Neil, et al. The post-Respect crisis in the SWP is clearly opening up space for some creative developments. Hopefully these moves may help address some of the pathologies the SWP has accumulated over the years.

    However, I had come to the conclusion that it would only be possible for the SWP membership to correct the accumulated pathologies of its leadership during a period of working class advance, or even socialist rupture. I thought that attempting to unpick decades of bad habit in ‘normal’ times of retreat or passivity may result in dissolution or implosion, rather than a successful reconstruction of the SWP. But now its all bursting out anyway, so the time is clearly now.

    I have many more comments I would like to make on Neils contribution. But I’ll do that later, maybe in other places.

    Instead I’d like to make a different preliminary point:
    Maybe whats interesting is the question of “who are we”? SWP groupies? The connoisseurs of CC intrigue? Left Train spotters? Why are we the reading this blog?

    A socialist organisation of the relative weight of the SWP compared to the rest of a left which consists of atomised individuals, small grouplets or issue based activist campaigners, will inevitably be the object of discussion amongst this wider left. What the SWP does (or doesn’t) impacts on all of us. SWP members can either protest that this is an ‘internal’ debate, that can only be had through official party structures – or they can get with the information age they actually live in.

    So there are many of us interested here – semi-members, ex-members, other left activists who have had to work with the SWP etc etc. We all have differing criticisms of this or that aspect of SWP practice, criticisms that are often incommensurate with each other.

    Nice to see Neil Davidson acknowledging this phenomenon –

    “Each wave of recruits has left embedded new layers of comrades, but many more have passed through our ranks. Had we had retained even half of the socialists who did so over the last thirty years we would now have an organisation several tens of thousands strong.

    “our ex-members constitute a pool of individual socialists with politics identical to those of the party, whose talents are not only lost to us, but who very likely add to the general suspicion of our motives and activities by recounting the experiences that led to their departure. Paradoxically, many are also glad that the SWP exists–but simply do want to be part of it”.

    Well thats a start. I think this leads on to the hope raised by the Socialist Alliance, – another point where I disagree a bit with Neil, but maybe that’s for another post.

  25. Why am I not surprised to find Harry’s Place first among the list of blogs that Jonny Mac reads?

  26. BarryKade on said:

    Btw – I think the StWC was by and large right to make alliances with Muslims. I would have different criticisms of the StWC…

  27. Yes, I’m a proud recipient of David T’s Zionist pay cheques!

    We all read stuff we tend to agree with (like me and HP). But equally it’s probably healthier to read stuff we normally don’t – like I do with SU. In fact, I’ve been meaning to add SU to the links on my blog. Hope you do something similar, ch…

  28. 23: “I knew that as soon as this one went up there’d be howls at the assertion that the SWP is effectively the only revolutionary party in Britain from a few on here,

    Hmm yes, the assertion that humans and dinosaurs lived in harmony side by side or that chastity is the most effective way of preventing teenage pregnancy tends to produce roughly the same response in me as well.

    “though a fair number of you know it’s true too.”

    And, strangely enough, this is roughly the same sort of response a flat earther will produce to support their zany notions as well.

  29. BarryKade on said:

    Please folks, lets not get derailed!

    This debate over the SWP is over the future of the UK revolutionary left (and its legacy). We have to seize this time to:

    Re-build the revolutionary left, understand the current period of capitalist crisis and find ways to articulate working class resistance.

  30. BarryKade on said:

    yes, its probably impossible for a member / supporter of a different socialist organisation or tradition – like the SP – to read Neil’s opening paragraphs without spitting!

    However – thats not the main point of his argument – so please – can we debate the substantive points?

    Relationship between parties like SWP and broader left formations? United fronts and broad counter-hegemonic alliances? Relationship between party leadership committees like the CC and the wider cadre? The nature of revolutionary leadership? etc etc. Do discuss!

  31. Neil Davidson’s article is an interesting critique of the lack of democracy in the SWP, but its hardly original in pointing that out and unfortunately, its solutions aren’t nearly radical enough and it has no understanding or analysis of globalisation and the impact of capitalist restoration on world capitalism.
    The reason there is a complete breach between the SWP’s world view, the analysis of the world presented by Harman principally and objective reality, is that this analysis is utterly false.
    It’s purpose is essentially to deny that anything substantive changed in world politics or economics with the transformation of the former “communist” centrally planned economies into capitalist ones during the 1990s.
    If the SWP are to get anywhere now, they need a root and branch reassessment of their understanding of the period and of their core politics, including the theory of state capitalism, which prevents them from ever developing a materialist assessment of the contemporary world.
    secondly in terms of the party, reforming the structure to promote democracy will not work. It can never work. The tradition of bureaucratic and hierarchical organisation, followed by the entire British left, top down, internal, rigidly centralist, bureaucratic, with power resting in the hands of “full timers”, produces the type of monstrosity defended so aptly by Rees. The SWP are not unique in this, it is common to all the groups which adhere to this structure, SWP,SP, Workers Power, AWL etc.
    This structure needs to be blown up. Instead of organisational discipline we need to establish political discipline i.e. comrades adhere to ideas because they have been politically won to them, not because to do otherwise will result in organisational sanctions.
    In my view all full timers should be sacked, they are unnecessary anymore as modern technology has faciliated communication, and they always act to neuter and weaken the ability of the rank and file to organise and lead action.

  32. “misleading narrative purporting to explain it; and that narrative was, deliberatly and cynically, one in which Muslims are victims”

    what on earth is misleading about this claim? Its factually true. Unless of course your the sort of person who doesn’t think chucking shoes at Bush is an entirely admirable activity.

  33. John Wight on said:

    Sadly, taken in the lump – the split in the SSP, the split in Respect, and now this latest faction fight in the SWP – all of it reflects the lack of working class struggle and class consciousness in society at large, which has led to the political degeneration of the left. At a time when the ruling class is about to begin a major offensive against the working class in response to the current crisis of capitalism, the working class have never been so atomised, demoralised, and defeated. The arbitrary rise in fuel prices by the energy companies alone was like a cruise missile being fired into every housing estate the length and breadth of Britain, and the response from the so-called organised left has been non existent.

    Nobody can take the moral high ground. All of us must share the responsibility for the way we’ve conducted ourselves politically over the last few years. Our credibility with the class is zero. Worse, we’re a laughing stock, which is why any future left unity project must be led by the progressive trade unions.

    It needs to happen sooner rather than later.

  34. Obviously, like most sane people, I didn’t bother reading all of this article.

    I may do so later. At least ND’s style is better than Richard Seymour’s!

    However, it does contain some Comedy Gold. This is my favourie paragraph:

    One explanation might be that SWP members are simply inadequate to the task of building a revolutionary party: we are a collection of eccentrics, dilettantes, malcontents and middle-class do-gooders, incapable of relating to workers and the oppressed, and consequently without roots in the class or local communities.

    I do not intend to dwell on this proposition since, as I outlined in the introduction, it is obviously untrue.


  35. BarryKade on said:

    post # 40

    Yes I laughed out loud at that as well. It is a funny moment of almost true self-recognition and delightful self mockery, so needed on the revolutionary left. I laughed, as I was laughing with comrades, not at them. As soon as I notice we are joined in laughter by poster #40, I just fell silent. Its not a joke I can share with him.

  36. re 40 – can this be the same David T., who makes up stories about people being in the SWP when they’re not – for no other reason than to claim that they’re not entitled to review a book by someone who is a member of the SWP??? And then when he’s told they’re not members of the SWP, he makes up another story about them being ‘activists’? Can this really be the same David T.? Surely not.


  37. Neil Davidson’s document is a fine contribution provided it is viewed as the beginning of a process, not its final product. The issues he raises are of strategic importance, even if some of the specificities are flawed. It is clear that the defeats inflicted recently on the core of the post-Cliff SWP leadership has led to a major crisis that opens up the possibility of a reassessment of major questions of politics and organisation – and the possibility of the creation of a more cohesive and democratic revolutionary organisation if there is a positive outcome to this crisis – which is possible.

    Comrade Davidson paints a picture of an organisation with considerable dynamism at times whose growth, whose regenerative capibilities and ultimately self-confidence have been stunted by a leading layer that evolved defensive, somewhat elitist and conservative modes of functioning that led to the atrophying of the organisation and a number of missed opportunities. That is a critique that should be regarded seriously … even if on the specifics of recent events comrades may disagree. In my view there are a number of comrades in Respect who are likely to be sympathetic to much of what comrade Davidson writes … despite his negative assesment of those who broke with the SWP over the Respect split.

    I think he is mistaken about this, for one very good reason …. the crisis of the SWP’s deformed internal regime that has given him the opportunity to write this often cogent critique has come about because Respect did not simply lay down and die when Rees tried to pull the plug, but managed to preserve itself and inflict a significant defeat on the hubris of Rees, particularly in last May’s London elections.

    I think comrade Davidson is mistaken in his assesment of these events; in terms of his analysis of the split with Respect he is still a prisoner of Rees’s fabricated myth of a left-right split and an anti-left witchhunt that never was. But having said that, I think if his kind of thinking were to prevail in the SWP, I suspect that there would be a real prospect of the re-establishment of comradely collaboration with many former SWP and other sympathetic comrades in and around Respect. We’ll have to see what happens now, but this is a hopeful development in my opinion.

    By the way, someone take the scum from HP sauce round the corner and shoot them. The tolerance for these troglodytes around here is getting fucking annoying. I suspect that is something else myself and many others in both Respect and the SWP would agree on.

  38. #30 Hello, Barry! Do I know you?

    What do I think of Neil’s document? I think it’s a contribution to an internal SWP discussion. Which one of those words do you want explaining?

  39. “Comrade Davidson”

    Can we just stop this nonsense? His name is Neil.

    It doesn’t show solidarity or even political kinship to call people “comrade”. The Weekly Worker uses it as a term of withering sarcasm. Time to put it to rest.

  40. My favourite bit was “In Julius Caesar, the most explicitly political of all his plays, Shakespeare makes Cassius say: “Men are some time masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Where does the fault lie?”

    How astute Neil, a man I like and think is pretty clever (though his book on the Scottish Nation is one of the most turgid books I have ever read). I think it only tells half a story, the problem with the SWP is they don’t relate to the working class – they do at times, it’s a bit like chaos theory – the more you move about the more likely you are to bump into things – if they are things you want to bump into then you think you have successes. I have tried for 17 years to work with the SWP and I have had successes and failure sadly more failures than successes. I have found them to be sectarian and only really interested in their own gain even through their special fronts whilst they are being broad the real intention is to build the SWP. You think you have an agreement then they do something sneaky! I am not saying all SWPs are “a collection of eccentrics, dilettantes, malcontents and middle-class do-gooders, incapable of relating to workers and the oppressed, and consequently without roots in the class or local communities” because that would be too cruel and actually not true. There was a time I had great respect for some SWPers.

    There are many problems on the “revolutionary left” and perhaps we have to own that but the solution is in relating to the needs of the working class and moving away from the God Delusion, that only “we” can save the working class from Barbarism or Capitalism!

    I predict a long protracted debate in the SWP with splits and expulsions! However it might bring more good than harm – lets see

  41. Lobby Ludd on said:

    “By the way, someone take the scum from HP sauce round the corner and shoot them. The tolerance for these troglodytes around here is getting fucking annoying. I suspect that is something else myself and many others in both Respect and the SWP would agree on.”

    I have no regard for David T, and less (!) for the generality of HP. I wish they would go away of their own accord.

    Trolls and ‘controversialists’ cannot be legistated away, except in extremis.

    I hope that is possible to build forums in which they plainly cannot make any impact, and so stay away.

    Is this possible?

  42. “or am i being silly?”

    Comment by Mark Anthony France

    fucking hell where to begin, this is the leading member of repsect who demands local govt workers are sacked!! single women are given better treatment than men!!! and searle etc come running to his defence. Well for all its warts I am with the SWP than a scab.

  43. Its not a good idea to bait Charlie about discussing this document. He is under discpline not to do so, that’s the way things stand at the moment. If the SWP make a collective decision to allow such a public debate, that would probably be a different matter, but they haven’t done so yet.

    It probably would be in their interest to do so; the internet makes keeping such things a secret a Canute-like endeavour, and in doing so they would also be returning to the practices of the Bolsheviks at their best, if the SWP habitually published things like this then they wouldn’t end up as samizdat, but it would be smarter to just discuss this stuff objectively, not harangue people as to why they aren’t breaking the rules yet.

  44. ID: ““By the way, someone take the scum from HP sauce round the corner and shoot them. The tolerance for these troglodytes around here is getting fucking annoying. I suspect that is something else myself and many others in both Respect and the SWP would agree on.”

    Well, the problem with banning people, is where do you draw the line?

    Not least because from the benefit of hard won experience,, I can tell you that once you do start banning and deleting people they usually find ways to cause more disruption than if you try to ignore them. ESpecially if they also have a high volume blog of their own.

  45. “It doesn’t show solidarity or even political kinship to call people “comrade”. The Weekly Worker uses it as a term of withering sarcasm.”

    They might do. I don’t.

  46. “Well, the problem with banning people, is where do you draw the line?”

    Well Andy, I have to say, when I first posted on this blog, it was against the rules to even post *links* to HP. Even if you were merely doing it to show how disgusting they were – they still are.

    This is a different discussion, and I don’t want to make it an issue on this thread of all threads (perhaps another time), but its not about the practicalities of banning people or deleting posts. Its about tolerance. I dont get the impression that DT is unwelcome here any more. That is a political shift, one I’m not very keen on.

  47. “They might do. I don’t.”

    Agreed, but it’s a term that has lost all value in the real world. Tiny, tiny point, nothing that I’m getting exercised about – but it is a bit of a relic, and I think it hinders rather than progresses discussion.

  48. Andy
    I see you lied about only putting up Rees and Molyneux articles because they were not in the internal bulletins of the SWP. The fact that this a load of bullshit makes me think the money spent on your private education was a complete waste and notions of “fair play” clearly didn’t get through to you.

  49. Andy
    can we have the minutes to the national exec of RR when you had a bust up with the ISR and claimed they were railroading and bullying the organisation. Perhaps a statement / article by yourself to explain how the ISR have got their own way against your good self. The fact that you argue that RR is on the verge of collpase and is totally irrelevant to the extent to want a ban on this years conference is surely something worth discussing. The fact that you think RR is at the end of the line could muster a few comments by a genius like yourself. I think it would also be useful to let us know if the decision for Galloway to be the sole voice on the GLA candidates was agreed by everyone on the NC??
    Your view that Galloway is unlikely to in the next election and this will lead to a massive question mark over the viability of RR woudl one have thought been the subject to this site. Also you refer to the ISR living in a fantasy land and basically their off their heads, could make an interesting debate.

  50. II, you are IIL.

    Comment by Jesus

    Well Andy did lie, its best to be straight about these things. He argued it was OK against the authors wishes to put up internal documents of the SWP based on the view they were not in the Internal Bulletin. The fact now he puts an article which is in the IB shows that that arguement by Andy was bollocks, he knew it was false and he is a bullshitter. Its not a matter of sickness to hold views not the same as you Jesus, but the evidence that Andy lied is frankly overwhelming. Now on the 2nd point about Andy’s nice private education, this was just a laugh and part of the banter of debate, also its true Andy had a private school education. Nothing wrong in that because he can’t have had any control over what money went where etc. But of course, on this site the SWP have been likened to the Nazi’s and Andy’s done fuck all about that so a little light music about his posh school is small beer. Indeed Andy I think has often called me a tosser and worse but thats what you get on the SUN. Well that alongside leading RR members calling for local govt workers to be scapegoated and sacked, that social workers are coke snorting over paid who have an easy life, that single women are better off than men!!. Yep all this from national exec members in Respect. Frankly no one aprt from Liam Uiad gets even the slightest bit upset by this crap. Indeed Andy and Sealre tell us its a sign how good RR is to have leading members calling for workers to be sacked. So I think if any views are sick, and I don’t like that way of putting it, it has to be for so called socialists to be attacking single mothers and local govt workers,

  51. I’ve just founded a new revolutionary party: The Anarcho-Trotskyist Schadenfreude League. I voted myself in as national president and will be holding a meeting soon. My programme is: ‘Enjoy!’ When people ask me, ‘Enjoy what?’, I will say, ‘All left groups’ infighting apart from my own…and anyway, I don’t infight with myself.’ I will be going to the working class with this tomorrow.

  52. The smart move for Rees would have been simply to endorse Neil Davidson’s document, with whatever mea culpas were needed to make it plausible. (And the really smart move would have been to say “I’m with Neil and Richard and China”.) Hitching himself to what seems to be an incipient reform faction would have helped him, harmed them or both. As it is, everything Rees says about the importance of UF work and the need for honest accounting in recruitment is undercut both by his own record and, ironically, by his defence of the organisational status quo within the party.

  53. David T., has to retract his claim that reviewer of Seymour’s book is in the SWP. Then follows this by making up lie that said reviewer is an SWP ‘activist’. A great week for Witchfinder Generalissimo. Success? If Bernie Madoff, philanthropic international fraudster can be described as a success, I guess David T. can be too.

  54. I dont get the impression that DT is unwelcome here any more.

    I don’t get the impression he’s any less welcome than ll.

  55. What absolute rubbish, Cliff saved the British working class

    unlike the Communist Party and Militant,
    the SWP , the WRP and can point to not a flicker on this history of the british working class

    The Anti Nazi League was very much a “local” broad bsed and most of it key people were actually Labour MPs ie the great Ernie Roberts (Hackney north) or Liberals like Peter Hain, so they would have equal rights to the ANL.

    The stop the war campaign was surely one of the biggest failurers ever for the Left. to have 2 m on the streets and still lose was increadible achievement. maybe the SWP just think its a success because they sold more papers, by calling rallies after rallies until they dwindled to nothing – Well done class act StW

  56. Phil
    You are welcome if you want local govt workers sacked and argue that single mothers get better treatment than men!! with a welcome like that, forget it.
    Anyway, Andy I hope is right about just 1 thing..,. that RR is fucked.. finger crossed lol then we can come on here and see the documents.

  57. #59 “the money spent on your private education was a complete waste ”

    I went to a private school, but I was a state funded pupil paid for by the tax payer through my local education authority, so the money may well have been wasted, but the funds wated were those of the state, in the same way as they would have been wated if i had gone to the local comprehensive.

    And your point is?

  58. Dear Koba on said:

    #66: Phil: “(And the really smart move would have been to say “I’m with Neil and Richard and China”.) ”

    Yes that wooud be the smart move, but a bit of a jump for someone with the SWP’s politics.

    But the Chinese CP are rich, with more than 70 million members, and they really do need a good champion in the british left, do you think Rees would be interested?

  59. Andy Newman on said:


    Well Andy, I have to say, when I first posted on this blog, it was against the rules to even post *links* to HP. Even if you were merely doing it to show how disgusting they were – they still are.

    This is a different discussion, and I don’t want to make it an issue on this thread of all threads (perhaps another time), but its not about the practicalities of banning people or deleting posts. Its about tolerance. I dont get the impression that DT is unwelcome here any more. That is a political shift, one I’m not very keen on.

    The thing is that while we were getting five to ten comments a day, then that sort of moderation regime was possible.

    Now we are in a totally different game, not only in volume, but also in how politically realistic it is.

  60. Andy, I can see that II’s question is one you don’t really want to answer, but do you have a reason why you’re keen to publish SWP documents but not so keen to publish RR ones?

  61. Andy Newman on said:


    There are no private Respect documents.

    Indeed the information that ll keeps quoting about a disagreement over the nature and timing of conference was infomration that i put into the public domain.

    As has been pointed out the politics of the dispute are largely about different strategic perceptions of what type of party Respect needs to be, and the tasks that flow from that. Socialist Resistance carried a debate from me and Alan Thornett over this issue, I did publish my contribution here as well as in Socialist resistance, and Liam iublished Alan’s contribution on-line.

    It was not me that motivated the preference to delay conference, and there are no documents relating to that debate, only exchanges of e-mail; and I assume phone calls and meetings that i was not party to.

    All of the political disagreements and tensions in respect are out in the open; there is no internal debate that is being hidden.

  62. #69 “The stop the war campaign was surely one of the biggest failurers ever for the Left. to have 2 m on the streets and still lose was increadible achievement. maybe the SWP just think its a success because they sold more papers, by calling rallies after rallies until they dwindled to nothing – Well done class act StW”

    There’s an lot of truth in that. Cant help thinking that if the huge anti-war 2m-strong march in London had ended with some anarchy on the streets like the anti-poll tax one in Trafalgar Square, or like in Seattle, the politicians wouldnt have been so cocky about sending troops to Iraq. Not when their political arse was on fire.

    Its just as well there’s organisations like the SWP to launch into their time-honoured grand old duke of york routine to let off some gentle steam. I can imagine the SWP Greek section last week calling for a “a really big march to the Acropolis and back waving lollipops in the air.”

  63. “There are no private Respect documents.”

    That’s pretty damning because that means the disagreements between different factions in RR aren’t even acknowledged in writing so that the members can join in the debate. Quite unlike the SWP that actually does allow internal debate and issues bulletins to members so that they are involved.

    The latest SWP bashing is being used to increase SU visitors in the battle of the site stats. Which goes to show how indispensable and pivotal the SWP is to all these sectarians. If only they spent half as much time actually engaged in politics instead of whingeing on about the SWP then perhaps the left would be in a lot more dynamic state. Perhaps I’m over-estimating their importance though. It must be pretty awful scavenging on the periphery in such a parasitical manner.

  64. “Its just as well there’s organisations like the SWP to launch into their time-honoured grand old duke of york routine to let off some gentle steam. I can imagine the SWP Greek section last week calling for a “a really big march to the Acropolis and back waving lollipops in the air.””

    Poor Kevin believes the SWP single-handedly snuffed out the anti-war campaign. When that is the level of political analysis is it any wonder he is in a majority of one?

    I’d love to hear Kev’s strategy for Greek workers. I suspect it’s about as relevant as his opinion of the StWC. If only he was in Greece I’m sure the workers would be saved. It must be so frustrating having these insights and no supporters. I wonder why?

  65. Normally ll’s full of crap and there’s a fair amount of it in his comments here(Andy’s education is irrelevant to this debate). But he does have a point that if Andy is quite willing to publish internal documents from an organization he’s not even a member it is hypocritical of him not to publish documents relating to RR’s impending split, if RR does have a more open democratic culture than the SWP then what is he hiding?. Of course it would be a lot easier if all organizations published documents arising from splits in the party like the SP did with the “scottish” turn and the name change debate.

  66. #79

    ” it is hypocritical of him not to publish documents relating to RR’s impending split, if RR does have a more open democratic culture than the SWP then what is he hiding?.”

    There is no impending split in Respect.

    There are political disagreement, and those political disagreements are already published in the public domain.

    There is no private, internal political debate in Respect, only in the sense that all political debate is open and public.

  67. Inigo Montoya on said:

    “There is no private, internal political debate in Respect, only in the sense that all political debate is open and public”

    And utterly irrelevant. Keep coming up with “the programme”, comrades, Galloway will always put the line. How wrong the SWP were about Respect, eh?

  68. Jock McTrousers on said:

    I stopped reading the comments after the second one which said what I was going to say anyway – he, like me, stopped reading Davison’s piece at the point where he reminded us that the SWP saved Britain from a nazi takeover in the seventies or 80s (?) by organising a pop concert. I did have a look at his conclusion – something about winning the leadership of the working class. HO HO HO. I wonder if ANYONE else read the rest of it.

  69. “There’s an lot of truth in that. Cant help thinking that if the huge anti-war 2m-strong march in London had ended with some anarchy on the streets like the anti-poll tax one in Trafalgar Square, or like in Seattle, the politicians wouldnt have been so cocky about sending troops to Iraq. Not when their political arse was on fire.”

    Kevin Williamson pretending to be a street fighting man, he didn’t even go to the London marches as he “could not be bothered spending all of that time on a coach”

    Keep it Real Kevin!


  70. Why would any self-respecting Scot want to go down to Londoninium to protest about anything to the colonial administration down there? We’ve got our own streets here in Edinburgh and they were occupied very effectively by the school students and direct action protestors for almost a week solid in 2003.

    Not that any SWP did much to help. At the end of the first day’s street occupations an SWP member with a megaphone stood outside the US Consulate in front of 100s of young protestors and tried to get the school students to go back to school. It took the school students themselves to overturn this with a vote for a second – and as it turned out successful – school strike the following day.

    When the G8 was in Edinburgh again yer SWP were making a total balls of it. There’s a video kicking about of an SWP member with a megaphone trying to break up an imprompto demo of 1000s that had taken control of prionces Street for a cople of hours. As John Wight and others on here who were there that day would testify the bulk of the demo told him where to go.

    Dont go in for much street fighting. Too old for that. Its been two years now since the last time I was held up against a wall at machine gun point (the Guardia Civil dont fuck about) or been shot at by police (here’s the footage I shot on my mobile: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=IbBrMEdQ1p0 ).

    What about yerself Sonic? Enjoy yer games of Scrabble on the STW buses?

  71. Futurecast on said:

    I have to say, as a member of the SWP I think this is the article for the party right now. With Molyneux’s a good sequel. I am very very hopeful this gets supported.

  72. Jonathan on said:

    “… tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water”. Is that a reasonable description of the more vituperative postings on this site? Yes, some good contributions but a lot of rubbish. Andy – why not limit this site exclusively to reasoned, reflective debate and screen out all the ad hominem attacks and other spiteful and inward looking comments? At a quick glance, I have in mind Doug and Irish Mark for this thread, but there are many others. I’m afraid that Lichtheim’s barb has considerable force in relation to this site. How does publishing poison contribute to the socialist movement.

    I also believe you are mistaken in relying solely on your own judgment to determine what should or should not be published on the site in the interests of socialism (you do imply that the decision to publish the SWP contributions was yours alone). Determinations of that sort should only be made with a wide variety of inputs, including from those who would rather their thoughts are kept private, as well as the wider socialist universe.

  73. Michael Rosen – you really ought to stop this lawyering for the SWP CC. It’s done them no good, and it’s made you look foolish over this last year.

  74. “There are many problems on the “revolutionary left” and perhaps we have to own that but the solution is in relating to the needs of the working class and moving away from the God Delusion, that only “we” can save the working class from Barbarism or Capitalism!”

    And not before time. Its a shame a publisher doesn’t commision Richard Dawkins to do an equally forensic sequel called “The Bolshevik Delusion”.

    Neil Davidson’s Life of Brian skit above is tedious to read but still worth a wry laugh or two. A classic example of a fossilised academic snuffling about blindfold in a political undergrowth of dead Russians.

    You’d think the working people of Europe had never fought for – and won – a tool with infinitely more potential than a one party state run by a Bolshevik clique: namely, universal suffrage. You’d think the idea of autonomous self-organisation had never surfaced. When you combine the two the SWPs of the world become little more than a Smash & Nicey blast from the past. Funny, but only for a while.

    The idea of a revolutionary vanguard party leading the proletariat to a glorious revolution has gone the way of the dodo, Olde English Spangles, and white dog shit. It’s over.

  75. Jonathan, I don’t know what ad hominem means. I do, however, have experience of the SWP and I stand by what I say – and there are plenty of people who’ll agree with my sentiments. Barring a few exceptions, the rest of the Left have found it so difficult, if not impossible, to work with the SWP that they’ve given up. There are a whole host of reasons for this in the general political practice of the SWP, it’s cynical opportunism, control-freakery, unwarranted interference, bullying, lying and nauseating baseless triumphalism.

    As for Kevin Williamson and his remarks about ‘the colonial administration’ in London is he still seriously plugging the Scotland as oppressed nation crap? Dear oh dear.

  76. Dug – Its only whinging-faced up-their-own-arse Brits who think Scots go about claiming we are oppressed by the English. The reality is nothing as crude as economic or political oppression. Administrative colonisation is a more acccurate description.

  77. Dear Koba on said:

    sometime in the late 1970s, they changed the recipe for dog food, due to concerns over dog’s health.

    Remember it started out normal colour, but then became bleached over time

  78. Yep, it used to have a lot of calcium in it (from bone). There is less of this in dog food these days (BSE probably has something to do with it).
    Also, white dog shit is usually shit that has dried out and become a bit crumbly.
    Believe it or not, better street cleaning and the fact that public opinion is now firmly against dogs being allowed to shit in the middle of the pavement means there is less of it around long enough to bake in the sun and produce the chalk cigars we used to know and love.
    I predict, as capitalism sinks into its final crisis, sanitation workers are sacked in their thousands, and packs of ravenous dogs roam the streets, gnawing on the bones of hapless shift-workers, that we will see a resurgence in the olde merde-blanc.
    Lets hope we don’t have too many hot summers.

  79. Mark Anthony France on said:

    95# RobM… with this detailed knowledge of ‘dog shit’ you’d would make a perfect local councillor… merry xmas!

  80. Yes that wooud be the smart move, but a bit of a jump for someone with the SWP’s politics.

    In the unlikely event that anyone’s genuinely confused, that’s China Mieville.

  81. Jock McTrousers on said:

    TRULY REMARKABLE ! For the first time I learned something interesting here. I’d always wondered what happened to the white dog shit I used to play with as a kid.

  82. Trotsky's Witness In Scotland on said:

    “What would Britsh Society be like if the SWp never existed?”

    Maybe there would be a deomcratic revolutionary party of some real influence!

  83. The Vengence of History on said:

    “What would Britsh Society be like if the SWp never existed?”

    This is brilliant – truly brilliant

    Just the same just the same

    Don you not realise that the reason for non growth has been the zero impact of Marxist ideas on the british people

    By the way on other threads the discussion on united vs pop fromt seems not to be being had properly

    Would it not be right to say that most of the Trots here think a Pop Front is correct but they need to call it a united front for some very odd reason

  84. `Don you not realise that the reason for non growth has been the zero impact of Marxist ideas on the british people.’

    More likely it is the zero impact of Marxist ideas on the SWP.

  85. The Vengence of History on said:

    Far from it I’m afraid

    I know I ‘ve asked this before but how many members do all these groups actually have

    Is the left in the UK bigger than 5,000 people excluding the greens? 10,000 including

    Which would make us smaller than the BNP

  86. Mike Greenhalf on said:

    I didn’t bother reading all the comments posted – sorry to all those who had something constructive to say beyond simply sniping, but I really don’t see the point of anyone coming to a forum to comment on something on which they have no common ground with the generality of the debate. It’s empty sectarianism – it’d be like me going to Harry’s Place and joining their discussion. Although I welcome the white dog shit information…..

    But Neil’s piece hits the mark exactly, and John Molyneux’s writing also makes solid points elsewhere on this blog on the prevailing culture of peer based censorship. The SWP needs to change its method of internal organisation and ways of working to avoid squandering a legacy of political analysis with which I generally agree (and with which, or course, you have the right to disagree).

    Anyone claiming any kind of allegiance with the left should surely have a perspective that aspires to a larger and more unified left, working against capital and not each other. Which means that each organisation, given the failure by anyone to achieve any of that thus far, needs to change in ways that move towards the goal. I know of most of the organisations of the left of any size in the UK, and they all suffer from different variants of the problem that Davidson and Molyneux are debating.