Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Origins of the Slate System

In a contribution to the ongoing debates in various left wing forums about the Bolshevik tradition and the far left in Britain, Pat Byrne has produced the following article, 'The Origins of the Slate System'. For readers unfamiliar with the slate system, this is the method of leadership election most commonly practiced in Britain's Trotskyist organisations. Without exception, this has produced semi-permanent leaderships who are impossible to remove short of an organisational split. In some cases, even today the odd comrade can be found who's served time for four or five decades. Pat looks at the roots of the slate system "tradition" in the post-revolution Bolshevik party.

The Origin of the ‘Slate System’ used in elections for the leadership of Leninist Groups
The leadership-recommended slate system for internal elections to the national leadership is used in most leninist groups. It is not a natural system arising from the workers own experiences and democratic instincts but something artificially imported into the workers movement. In theory, the slate system can be used to recommend a list that consciously includes a good balance of talents and personalities. In practice, it gives the existing leadership a temendous advantage in elections and experience has shown that it has allowed leaders to secure their continuous re-election along with a body of like-minded and loyal followers.

Let’s examine how the ‘slate system’ arose. As the leninist movement supposedly bases itself on the example of the Bolshevik Party, we need to start our process of discovery here. The following information comes mainly from a study made on how Communist Party internal elections were carried out in Revolutionary Russia. The study, ‘The Evolution of Leadership Selection In The Central Committee 1917-1927’, was written by the well-known sovietologist and academic Robert V. Daniels who drew most of his information from the official records of Bolshevik and CPSU party congresses. His essay was published in a fairly obscure academic study of Russian Officialdom which covered Russian society from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

The first thing that may be surprising to state is that the Bolshevik Party did not operate slates. By Bolshevik Party we mean the party that led the Socialist Revolution in October 1917. This party, the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (majority), used the normal system of electing its leadership that has naturally emerged in every workers movement across the world – voting for individual candidates in a competitive election. Thus those successfully elected to the Central Committee (the leading body of the Party) had to receive higher votes than the unsuccessful candidates. Of course, unofficial slates did exist based on political questions and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there was no official list of candidates recommended by the outgoing leadership with all the advantage and status that would have conferred on a candidate.

This normal election procedure continued after the revolution and the Bolshevik Party changed its name to the Communist Party:
“Until well after the Revolution the makeup of the Communist Central Committee was governed by genuine elections at the party congresses, however they may have been influenced by factional con troversies and pressure by the leadership (i.e. Lenin). Congress dele gates voted for as many individuals as there were seats on the Central Committee, and the appropriate number with the highest votes were declared elected. Candidate members were originally the runners-up, but by 1920 they were being voted on separately after the roster of full members was announced. Under these conditions the membership of the Central Committee was naturally drawn from well-known revolutionary activists and key figures in the central party leadership.” (pp.357-358)
Thus the relatively small Central Committee was made up of well-known individuals:
Through 1920, at least, the numbers were small enough so that most aspirants were being voted on by the Congress delegates on the basis of personal or direct knowledge. However, or perhaps for this reason, election to the Central Committee was sensitive to personal popu larity and the interplay of the factional controversies that freely ani mated the life of the party during the War Communism period. Some individuals (A.S. Bubnov, for instance) reached, fell, and returned to the Central Committee as many as three times. (p.358)
However, a significant change occurred in 1921. This was a key year in the development of the Soviet Union. In many respects 1921 was the turning point from which we can trace the degeneration of the Communist Party and the Soviet state it ruled. This was the year which saw mass hunger in the countryside and strikes in the cities. A major factional battle ensued between Lenin on one side and Trotsky on the other over how to solve the crisis. The old Central Committee was almost evenly divided. In the elections for the delegates to the Tenth Party Congress Lenin’s more flexible and positive position won a large majority. But the delegate election campaign also reflected the growing ability of the official party bureaucracy to manipulate the party machine with many examples of the packing of meetings etc. Lenin’s victory meant the abandonment of War Communism and the introduction of the New Economic Policy. The latter allowed the partial reintroduction of the market and small-scale capitalism. However, the serious revolt of the sailors at Kronstadt which threatened the whole future of the revolution brought matters to a head. It was in the midst of this crisis that the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party met.

Quite apart from the division within the party leadership caused by the Trade Union Debate, discontent was rife at all levels of the Party. There were two rank and file opposition factions: the Democratic Centralists who protested that the democratic aspect of the party and state life was being lost; and the Workers Opposition who were pushing for direct trade union control of industry. It was in this situation that Lenin introduced his disastrous proposal to ban factions. Although this was only thought to be a temporary measure to prevent the party being torn apart in the crisis, it became a permanent rule within the Soviet Party and was used by Stalin again and again to silence dissent.

The same was true with the proposal to purge the party of uncommunist elements who had joined for opportunist reasons. This had originally been put forward by the Workers Opposition and was taken up and psuhed forward by Lenin. But its implementation was carried out by Stalin and his loyal party apparatus who used it to remove poilitcal dissidents and recruit more ‘reliable’ elements.

The third organisational measure that was to make it much easier for Stalin to assert and maintain control was the introduction of a block slate system in the elections for the Central Committee.

In 1921, at the Tenth Party Congress, the first signs appeared of a basic change in the actual manner of selecting Central Committee members. This was the practice of making up a semiofficial slate of aspirants, to be voted on de facto as a group by the Congress delegates. The occasion happened to be the most acute crisis ever experienced by the Soviet leadership, when it came under attack both externally from peasant rebels and the naval mutineers at Kronstadt, and internally from the left and ultraleft factions represented by Trotsky and the Workers' Opposition. Having decisively defeated his critics within the Communist Party in the pre-Congress delegate se lection, Lenin evidently decided to use his influence not only to oust several key oppositionists from the Central Committee but to expand the body from nineteen to twenty-five, thereby creating in all nearly a dozen openings for new people.

The fact that a slate of recommended official candidates was pre pared for the Congress delegates to vote on is made clear by the totals of individual votes announced after the ballot. Lenin was everyone's choice, with 479 votes. But nearly unanimous votes were received by numerous other people, tapering down to 351 for the twenty-fourth member, the newcomer I. Ia. Tuntul, "... far ahead of the next contender, the deposed Trotskyist party secretary Krestinsky with 161.” (p.357-358)

In addition to the ‘old Bolshevik’ leaders, Lenin promoted less well-known figures who he thought would be more supportive of his position:
Basically Lenin's slate making to curb the opposition fac tions that so plagued him in 1921 relied on the award of Central Committee status to loyal but not widely known provincial functionaries who would have stood little chance in the earlier style contest for a smaller body of stellar personalities. (p.359-360)
At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1922, in which Lenin was unable to play a major role due to illness, the individual figures for the elections to the Central Committee were for the first time not even announced. Presumably because it would have appeared strange and embarrassing to see the unofficial leadership slate all gaining similar votes, way ahead of the rest of the candidates.

1922 was also the year in which Stalin was able to decisively take over the party machine. As with other measures introduced by Lenin that were intended to temporarily minimise dissent, the tactic of increasing the size of the Central Committee was seized upon by Stalin who combined it with a leadership-organised slate as a means of securing the election of new more loyal members. This culminated at the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923 (with Lenin absent):
Nineteen twenty-three was the year of Joseph Stalin's signal break through in setting up a personal political organization in the Party, following his designation as general secretary the year before. Turning Lenin's proposal for an expanded Central Committee to his own ad vantage, Stalin persuaded the Twelfth Congress to increase the body from twenty-seven to forty. This substantial expansion, together with three vacancies, gave him sixteen slots to fill. Slate making was in evidence once again when the Twelfth Congress came to the election of the Central Committee, though the mathematics of it were covered up by a motion at the Congress to withhold announcement of individual vote totals. Trotsky led the opposition to the proposed expansion, holding out for a small body that could continue to exercise quick day-to-day decision-making authority. (p.360)
At each succeeding Party Congress up to and including 1927 Stalin increased the size of the Central Committee, thus allowing him to promote yet more grateful party and state functionaries and thereby increase his domination of the leadership:
The Thirteenth Party Congress of May 1924, was the first to come after Lenin's demise and the open break between Trotsky and the party leadership. It was the occasion for another substantial expansion in the ranks of the Central Committee, this time from forty to fifty-two. While practically all incumbents were confirmed in office, one — Lenin — had died; one was transferred to the Central Control Commission, which ruled out Central Committee membership, and one—Karl Radek—was dropped for his activities on behalf of Trotsky.” (p.361)

At the Fourteenth Party Congress, in December 1925. when Zinoviev broke with Stalin and went down to defeat, the Central Com mittee was once again substantially enlarged—this time by eleven men, from fifty-two to sixty-three. In this manner Stalin continued to build his power base while minimizing the head-on confrontations that would be implied in removing his leading opponents. (p.362)

The Fifteenth Party Conference, held in December 1927, a year later than the rules called for, saw the dramatic expulsion of the Left Op position headed by Trotsky and Zinoviev. The unprecedented number of eight Central Committee members were dropped for oppositionist activity... With the seventy-one members of 1927, the Central Committee had reached a level that was to hold constant through the post-purge Eighteenth Congress of 1939... 121 members and candidate members in total.” (pp.363-364)

Daniels concludes his assessment thus : “Within the short span of five years under Stalin's organizational domination the central leadership body (Central Committee members and candidates) was expanded more than two and a half times and almost totally realigned from an elected group of the articulate and politically popular to a body de facto appointed on the basis of bureaucratic constituencies.” (p.366)

Stalin’s peversion of democracy within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union reached the point at the Seventeenth Party Conference in early 1934 where the only way the delegates could express their feelings in the elections was to cross out the name of the people they didn’t want. This they did in the elections for the Politburo with Stalin receiving 267 negative votes in comparison to the more moderate leader of the Leninigrad Party, Sergei Kirov, who only received 3 negative votes. This result was of course not reported to the Congress delegates.
The 17th Congress has also been given the name ‘The Congress of the Condemned’ because of 1,996 party members present, 1,108 were arrested, and about two thirds of those executed within three years, largely during the Great Terror. Of the 139 members elected to the Central Committee in the 17th Congress, 98 would be executed in the purges. And of the remaining 41, only 24 would be re-elected to the Central Committee in the 18th Congress.*”
Kirov himself was assassinated later in the year and much of the evidence as well as the motive points to Stalin as having ordered the assassination against Kirov as a popular alternative. The results of the election at the 1934 conference would have not only marked Kirov as a dangerous rival in Stalin’s eyes but also convinced Stalin of the party’s disloyalty to him. It may explain not only the Kirov assassination but the use of it as a pretext for the Great Purge which saw the removal of 850,000 members from the Party, or 36% of its membership, between 1936 and 1938. Many of these individuals were executed or perished in prison camps. “Old Bolsheviks” who had been members of the Party in 1917 were especially targeted. Additional triggers for the purge may have been the refusal by the Politburo in 1932 to approve the execution of M.N. Riutin, an Old Bolshevik who had distributed a 200-page pamphlet calling for the removal of Stalin and their refusal in 1933 to approve the execution of A.P. Smirnov, who had been a party member since 1896 and had also been found to be agitating for Stalin’s removal. The failure of the Politburo to act ruthlessly against anti-Stalinists in the Party combined in Stalin’s mind with Kirov’s growing popularity to convince him of the need to move decisively against his opponents, real or perceived, and destroy them and their reputations as a means of consolidating Stalin and the bureaucracy’s power over the party and the state.

* ‘The Russian Revolution’ by Sheila Fitzpatrick

The Trotskyist Movement And The Slate System
How and why the slate system was adopted by the trotskyist movement would be a very useful subject for study. It could be that it was just carried over with the rest of the democratic centralist model imposed on individual communist parties by the Communist International. Or it could have been stalinist baggage carried into the trotskyist movement when the international left opposition was formed out of so many splits in the communist parties. Interestingly, there was a reference to its introduction into the British Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) at its conference in 1950:
At this conference Healy introduced another novelty - a slate for election to the National Committee. The EC had drawn up this slate and if any delegate wanted to nominate someone who was not on the slate they also had to nominate someone else to be taken off!” (‘The Methods of Gerry Healy’ by Ken Tarbuck, published in Workers News No.30, April 1991, under the pseudonym of "John Walters" and with the title "Origins of the SWP")
Bear in mind that the 1950 conference of the RCP was the one where Healy was able to overcome all his opposition. The slate allowed him to get a Central Committee entirely to his liking. In previous years the RCP had operated a system where the factions in the organisations automatically had a number of seats on the CC according to the level of support they had among the membership. And the faction’s representatives on the CC were decided by the faction themselves. Compare this to the situation in the rare occasions that factions were allowed in the Militant Tendency. Then whether a faction had representatives on the CC and who they were lay in the hands of the majority leadership when they drew up their recommended slate. A completely undemocratic situation.

Pat Byrne March 2010


Michael Fisher said...

There are a number of reasons why the core leaders of Trotskyist groups are almost never removed by democratic means - and I'm not sure the slate system is among the most important.

The main leaders tend to be full-time activists paid very little. They have the very rare quality of being able to engage in years and often decades of grinding agitational and propagandistic work with usually little of political substance to show for it. This is admirable to the extent that it reflects a genuine dedication to socialism. It is less so to the extent it reflects the adoption of a rigid and dogmatic world view that is immune from the real development of the class struggle.

In most Trotskyist groups this type of leader has enormous personal and political authority. More junior leaders are often raised in their image. The rapid membership turnover typical of Trotskyist groups as recruits become exhausted and demoralised by the failure of the promised mass radicalisations to materialise helps to miminise the likelihood that a coherent opposition to the established leadership will develop and endure.

I suspect the slate system contributes to this - but is not the efficient cause.

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on the details of much of the rest but Pat's penultimate sentence contains three errors and one important omission of facts. These I would argue undermine the conclusion in what would have been his be his final sentence if he could have been bothered to put a verb in it.

Pat says:

'Compare this to the situation in the rare occasions that factions were allowed in the Militant Tendency. Then whether a faction had representatives on the CC and who they were lay in the hands of the majority leadership when they drew up their recommended slate. A completely undemocratic situation.'

Pat's errors are:

Firstly: In the Militant Tendency and the CWI there is an absolute right to form a faction or tendency. This right has been enshrined in all constitutions of the CWI. The 'rare occasions' were not 'that a faction or tendency was allowed' but 'that a faction or tendency occured' and a group of members chose to exercise that right.

Secondly: By practice (if not constitutional right) minority factions have always been allowed representation on slates, and where minority groupings do not have representation on leading bodies between conferences they have been allowed speaking rights.

Thirdly: Selection of those representatives has always been in the hands of the minority factions.

Pat's Omission is that the size of representation afforded to minorities has often been significantly in EXCESS of their representation in the party as whole.

Charlie Pottins said...

This is an eye-opener. But then, in my experience, though leaders often refer to supposed Bolshevik tradition, members seldom have access to Bolshevik (let alone other socialist) history. It is a bit like the Church must have held sway when there were no books, or no Bibles in the vernacular, and the priests held a monopoly on interpretation.
I remember the slate system in the Healy party, though at least we had the opportunity to propose additions and explain why we thought someone should be on the central committee.(This was in the early 'Seventies anyway).
There was supposed to be a panels committee separate from the CC and also to arbitrate any differences between individual comrades and the party, though this may have been pretty tame and subservient.
However my real surprise came in the Socialist Alliance, where I discovered you not only a slate system for the executive, but for the appeals committee (I forget its official title) that was supposed to handle any complaints by comrades. I was nominated to this, but when the nominations were posted up my name was not on the list. When comrades asked why, the platform said that I had only been nominated as an individual, and should have been put forward with an alternative slate!
This had never occurred to me, as I knew and had worked with at least one of the other people, an SWP member as it happened, and I had accepted nomination thinking it would just mean working alongside him and another, not as an opposition. After all, if someone had a problem with the Alliance executive (such as when a comrade found her signature had been forged on cheques) what chance had they of getting a hearing when even an appeals committee was stuffed with "my party, right or wrong" nominees?
Another thing that happened was a decision had to be made between two people for on executive seat (why couldn't they just fetch in an extra chair? ;-)) It went to an AWL member simply because he represented an organisation whereas the other person, though trusted and liked, enough to have been voted in, was "only an individual".
With so much control-freakery and and first and second class membership no wonder the Socialist Alliance could not be built as a party, not that those who took control before ditching it had ever intended it to be.

Phil said...

I'm inclined to agree with Michael, there are more important reasons why Trotskyist and other self-described Leninist organisations have permanent leaderships. As far as I see it the slate system is just one method used to bolster the status quo rather than being responsible for it. For example, had the SP ditched its slate system a long time ago (as the SP in Ireland had) it would still be the same faces on the Executive Committee.

Now some might think this doesn't matter, as long as the leaders get the job done who really cares? But it does matter very much. Without some form of term limit or rotation the same individuals dominate the party's thinking, experience of leadership roles are concentrated and not dispersed, and there is the unavoidable tendency toward cliquishness and an organised suspicion of the members on the part of the leadership. None of this is healthy, even in organisations like the SP where (in my experience) the cult of the personality and crude bureaucratic excesses are very much the exception than the rule of day to day party life.

Anonymous said...

I tried to post on this thread some time back, but for some reason (my incompetence I expect!) it didn't save.

Pat's article contains a number of errors in the last paragraph. Both constitutionally and in practice in the Militant/SP/CWI:

a) organised minorities (declared factions or tendnecies) have the right to representation on the leading body.

b) minorities have the right to put forward their representatives (ie they are NOT selected by the majority)

c) in fact in practice minorities have often been given representation well in EXCESS of their numerical strength within the party