Thursday 18 December 2008

John Rees and Revolutionary Elitism

Just what the world needs, another post on the ongoing ructions in the SWP! Well, as a blogger I'm a firm believer in difference through repetition, so I will allow myself the indulgence of tackling some of the issues around the debate in the SWP, particularly the semi-official discussion document on "united fronts", socialist recruitment and leadership, by John Rees (pictured). Also it's not like me to plug the Weekly Worker these days, but sect-kremlinologist extraordinaire, Peter Manson, has written a rather good commentary that puts some flesh on the factional bones.

But first things first I want to address the complaints some SWP comrades have been making on the relevant discussions over at
Socialist Unity about the public nature of debate, before moving on to some of the points in Rees's document that demonstrate differences between how the SWP has traditionally built their organisation, and how the Socialist Party has built ours.

A few comrades have expressed their frustrations at these discussions being leaked because it's "not fair" non-members should get to read them before most of the membership have had the chance to talk about them in their branches. There's also the suggestion that seeing public discussions about the issues by non-members would somehow impact negatively on that taking place inside the party. So I asked myself whether things would be much different if the shoe was on the other foot and it was the SP that was leaking documents right, left and centre in the middle of an important strategic dispute? While it would be nice for members to see and discuss the issues first, is the sky going to come crashing in if documents are publicly available elsewhere? Second, might they not enhance the reputation of the organisation concerned among class conscious workers and socialist activists who take an interest in these sorts of debates? Couldn't it be seen as an opportunity to engage with an intelligent and active periphery who during the course of a public debate be drawn closer to the party? And finally, how can an organisation hope to withstand the tough conditions of a revolutionary situation if it is brittle enough to come apart when a few discussion documents escape the orbit of its membership? Facts are in this day and age
all organisations are significantly leakier - if a revolutionary organisation of more than a few dozen members is having a debate chances are the arguments will turn up somewhere in public. This is a reality we're all going to have to get used to.

Rant over.

John Rees's document is a most interesting piece, outlining as it does the positions that mark him off from his erstwhile fellow central committee members. Brother Rees is understandably angered by the shoddy way he has been treated by the leadership. He points out that the
Respect experience - how the SWP operated within it, the strategy it promoted for the formation, and its collective response to Galloway's mild criticisms were all backed to the hilt by the central committee. With the dropping of Rees from the outgoing CC's recommended slate due to be placed before the 2009 conference, it's clear to all that in the absence of a critique of Rees and of a thorough-going self-criticism, it is he who's being made the patsy for everything that has happened. Be sure you have to accept a large dollop of myth-making to go along with Rees's Respect narrative, but he is correct to write "to reduce the complex history of the very real successes and the demoralising demise of Respect to the failures of one comrade is doing a disservice to everyone who was involved or wants to learn from the experience".

For Rees the road leading to his downfall began last November, shortly after the two wings of Respect had split. The issue was recruitment to the SWP. Lindsey German had produced a document on the issue, which earned her a denunciation at the CC meeting from national secretary, Martin Smith. It seems sister German had mentioned the unmentionable, which Rees now repeats: why has the SWP not recruited as well as it should have done, given a more favourable turn in the political situation and the work it has done among various movements and campaigns? His answer is that some of it is partly due to the "classless" character of radicalisation, and partly because the SWP hasn't been geared up enough to take advantage of its opportunities. The party should have done more "united front" activity, and have promoted itself more aggressively inside them. Instead the party developed an uneven membership as it pursued the anti-capitalist/global justice and anti-war movements with those members who were willing to go along with the optimistic perspectives the CC developed for them. The result was a layer of members who were utterly disoriented and came to see the problems with Respect as a fractional problem for that element of the party engaged in that work, and not a something the party as a whole should take up. While Rees is happy to hold his hands up to the problems attendant of an uneven strategy, he clearly implies that other elements on the CC were not pulling their weight - instead they seemed happy just to get the members paying their direct debits so the SWP's "permanent" financial crisis does not come home to roost.

It is good that Rees sees no future for the SWP in a retreat into its sectarian bunker. Unfortunately, it is less desirable that he fetishises the role of the leadership. As he puts it, "to do anything in the party the leadership must, in a certain sense, exaggerate. You have to overcome the natural inertia that exists in any organisation. Organisations have set patterns of work inherited from the past, ways of doing things, tried and tested methods that were developed and set in place for good reason ... if you want organisations and the people who compose them to change they must be political convinced, motivated and the inertia within them has to be counteracted. You have to ‘bend the stick’". It seems what Rees has in mind is substitutionism whereby the leadership substitutes itself for the membership, which is an amorphous (mini?) mass who do not play any role in determining the fate of their organisation. It is as if the "jobs, homes, lives around which political activity has to be fitted in" are a barrier to the party, to possessing the right political judgement, which is uniquely the province of the full time activists. Surely, if one wants to be old-fashioned and Marxist about these matters, having revolutionaries who are immersed full-time in an apparatus that, in Rees's words, "is necessarily devoted to raising money rather than raising the number of members"
leading the organisation is a very bad idea. It is a recipe for isolation from the lives and experiences of our class and insulates the leaders from properly understanding the strategies and tactics best able to connect with it. The voice of the wider membership who are connected by a million and one ties to the class are dismissed.

I think this is one key difference between the SWP and SP. While it is true the SP possesses a full time apparatus and is led by an executive committee of full time activists, the distortions and the by-passing/denigration of the rank-and-file does not happen. Why? Going from my experience, it appears that SP full timers, including those who work in the national office, remain very much rooted in the life of the branches. Building sustainable and self-perpetuating branches through the development of local political strategies is the way the SP builds its organisation, and is something every member of the party is involved in. It means full timers out in the regions find their work guided more by local branch strategy than recruitment and fund-raising targets issued by the centre. By virtue of this method leading cadres are able to keep their feet on the ground and make them better able to assimilate the lessons from the branches when it comes to the development of new analyses and strategies. It's not a perfect system and I'm sure ex-comrades have their atrocity stories, but by and large it serves the SP well.

SWP comrades could do a lot worse than take Rees's advice about turning outwards, but they should also look at how their comrades over in the SP do things rather than lapse into revolutionary elitism.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps you might like to note this comment from someone not in the SWP:

"how can an organisation hope to withstand the tough conditions of a revolutionary situation if it is brittle enough to come apart when a few discussion documents escape the orbit of its membership? "

Well the SWP obviously hasn't come apart, and doesn't seem to be taking steps to stop the leak, so seems to be reletively casual about it (this doesn't legitimise posting the documents without the permission of the authors, that would be a "contributory negligence" defence).

On what you say about organisation: if the full-timers are closer to the branches, isn't it possible they will just be more interfering?

Id wonder if there are some long -term structural problems with Left organisations resulting from the advances of technology. I suggested to some SWP comrades at the recent Climate Change march if they really thought a printed paper would be the scaffolding around which a revolutionary party would be built in ten years time. Looking back on the environmental and anti-capitalist activists of the nineties, is perhaps one reason why the far left failed to implant itself in those struggles because they were beginning to be organised very differently? Maybe the traditional branch structure is still the best way to group together activists locally.

Anonymous said...

"if the full-timers are closer to the branches, isn't it possible they will just be more interfering?"

Not in my experience in two branches, no. Most activity is locally led as AVPS notes, and any fund raising or recruitment are set by the branch in conjunction with a full timer, rather than imposed.

I find it works very well, with coordination at regional, national (and in the south west sub-regional) levels between branches and individual comrades, with branches making the running on a day-to-day basis in terms of campaigning and organisational matters.

I've always found it baffling why the SWP got rid of branches, it seems clearly the best local method of organising. Obviously the danger of routinism is there, but provided you are aware of it, it can be dealt with.

Phil said...

Thanks, SkidMarx - I'll just paste up what Neil has to say about the SP's internal organisation here:

"“Cliff was like that, Healy was like that, Grant was like that. Peter Taaffe is not an untalented bloke, but I don’t see that he is so special he should be General Secretary for 45 years and counting.”

Well I’d say the main difference with Peter Taaffe and the rest is that he’s been deeply involved in the day to day running of two mass movements, one of them victorious. Certainly Cliff, Harman or who ever can’t claim that. I think it would be a loss for us to lose that kind of experience from the leadership.

Also you can say what you like about the SP/Militant (and people frequently do!) but I think it is a mistake to compare our internal runnings with that of the SWP nevermind the WRP etc. For one factions are allowed to function (at any time of the year) with full access to party publications, seats on the National Committee and Exec etc.

While the SP does use a slate system for the NC the key difference I think is that only rank and file members elected from the branches at conference have a full vote. Full timers only get a consultative vote.

Now this is not a perfect system that, by itself, guarentees a bureaucracy cannot come to dominate the organisation. No such system exists. The key ingredient that keeps bureaucracy and cliques at bay is a well educated, questioning membership that feels it has the right and duty to raise differences with policy and tactics at any level in the party.

Despite the recent documents published by various factions in the SWP I see little signs of this yet in the SWP. One of the things I found most shocking in all these documents is Molyneux’s frank description (and Andy Newmans corroberation) of the way district full timers seem to rule their branches like fuedal lords and ladies. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the SP and your more likely to get a punch in the gob than reluctant obedience with that kind of behaviour.
Such a culture of discussion can’t be implanted into an organisation over night."

Phil said...

What I had in mind, SkidMarx when I was talking about the "brittleness" of comrades over internal discussions leaking were the numbers of people who complain about it. What's being leaked after all are glimpses of an unfolding political argument, which is of a different order to say membership figures or financial details.

I'd just repeat what Jim says about the full timers. Our regional full timer is based in a particular West Midlands city where he is a member of the branch like any other - the difference being of course that he works for the party full time. Unless he has a branch position, and authority he has flows from the dedication, record and experience he has accumulated over the years - an authority tempered by that of other long term members of the branch.

Part of his work involves visiting new contacts across the region and that kind of thing. He is not expected to nor does he intervene in the internal lives of the branches in the same way reports about SWP full timers suggest. When he visits our branch every so often he contributes to the discussions we're having and may give a report about how the party is doing in the rest of the WestMids.

He does play a leadership role in coordinating our regional committee, but again this is in a chairing capacity. He has his ideas about building regionally and the delegates have theirs. Because he is full time doesn't give his opinions a special status - they are discussed and debated in the same way as any contribution from any member is.

Re: the global justice/environmentalist milieu, I think you might be partly right about the structure of the far left and the way these activists organise. But I don't think it should be overstated; it is one cause among many. I'm inclined to agree with what Rees says about it - this milieu got into radical politics at a time when socialist ideas and notions of working class struggle were in major retreat. It would have been very difficult for say a so-called libertarian Marxist current to have made any headway as well. That said, Globalise Resistance seemed to do ok from the SWP's point of view - but particularly the 'contamination' approach pioneered by Rifondazione Comunista activists in Italy seemed to strike deep roots among this milieu too.

I am an enthusiast for the branch structure as the best way of pooling the experience and activism of socialists, of dividing the work up among comrades and drawing the threads together. I can't see how any kind of political organisation can hope to be successful without it.

Dave Riley said...

Here in Australia we are faced with the conundrum of trying to organize the Socialist Alliance differently from the way, say, the DSP organizes itself. And there's a cultural divide because they are two very different projects.

The DSP -- which is a Marxist tendency in the SA --has just come out of a period wherein a massive factional debate raged in the party for almost three very long years and skewed its activity.

And while I had only rejoined the DSP three years ago from the SA , I'm willing to be humbled by the question of organisation in the light of these two very separate experiences.

My feeling is that we cannot afford to relax because regardless of form and habit, the real content of party democracy and organising is not going to always fit your schema.

In the case of the DSP debate, my view would be that centralism is as significant a factor as critical discussion in ensuring that democracy rules. And if decisions made are not put into practice in the way the majority making them decided, then it is a very cheapened democracy.

My point is that democracy for its own sake is a very liberal notion . The consequences of such a cheapened democracy is that your political work suffers.

In the SA the question of real leadership is still being developed and so democracy is ruled more by consensus and that weakens what we can do but there is no other way forward at the moment..

So I doubt there are any rules you can deploy that will decide any organsitaional matter for you before hand. As Derek Wall has said about the Green Party in England: you may have absolute agreement over policy issues but if you want a fight it's organisational disputes that will really feed a angry debate.

Nonetheless in my political experience going back a few decades, it is the non aligned left who are dedicated to bureaucratism as they have much less confidence in open decision making and '
the masses' than the mass movement oriented party orgs do.

My point is that the democracy you preach outside your party org has to be in some way related to the democracy you practice inside and your own group . The groups that stuff that relationship up are the ones who cloud their own thinking on the best way to do politics and actually build something sustainable.

I think the SWP appears to get this wrong.

The far left orgs should proceed on the movement principle that they have nothing to lose from open debate and voting.

Nonetheless, it is an iron rule of party politics that organisational questions will mask political disputes and I think that's the case in this present debate in the SWP. So I think Phil is offering a shallow reading of the dispute.

One rule of thumb in party politics is to not allow an organisational dispute get in the way of debating out the political questions at stake and this is why the dispute in the DSP lasted so friggin long.

The SP knows about disputes as its history is littered with them -- such as when you left the Labor Party or when the Scottish comrades chose the Socialist Alliance course -- and I guess you'd have to agree that no set form of organisation is really tested until it has to survive dispute mode over an extended period of time.

I also think, and this is me being ever so humble, that a lot of what we smallish party orgs label ourselves in way of Leninist this and that is so much gross pretension because we assume that we can "be Leninist" by means of organisational form and structure alone -- and thats' bullshit but it has festered as a long time manta especially among the Trotskyist far left. There's this ludicrous attitude that Leninism is all this organsitational skeleton and all we need do is work our buts off laying on flesh and getting lucky.

After all, we've got the 'right' program, haven't we?

Phil said...

I believe organisation follows politics. Because the SP/CWI tradition has developed a particular way of working and relating socialist politics to the contexts the party has worked in over 40 years, a particular approach to organisational questions has grown from this. If you compare us with, say, the other organisation I came to know relatively well - the cpgb - their more open style fits their primary activity, which is going along to other left meetings and debating with the comrades they find there.

The same is true of the SWP. As was discussed here previously about their lack of a programme (which, regardless of its rights and wrongs, at least has the virtue of setting out a strategic vision and therefore a line of march for a given organisation), their strange mix of bureaucratism and anarchic organisation is a consequence of not being clear on this issue. The SWP possess an organisation that can harness a great deal of activist energy for bursts of activity across a number of hot issues, but isn't that well suited to developing cadre over long periods of time - hence the relentless membership turnover, which must be greater than most other left organisations. Dealing effectively with the organisational issue requires a root and branch review of politics and strategy, nothing else will do. But I am convinced SWP comrades who are committed to that perspective might find something worth learning from the SP and the other main tendencies on the far left.

Also, another document (from Alex Callinicos this time) has made its way onto Socialist Unity. Definitely a case of the politics creeping out from behind organisational issues!

ModernityBlog said...

Coatesy's covered this:

"Just a point: the Ligue Communiste R√©volutionnaire has for many years made the main lines of its internal discussions available to anyone interested. The Web forum associated with them (Forum marxiste r√©volutionnaire) posts wide-ranging discussions, from virulently critical to hard-line supportive, of its politics. Apparently it is beyond the wit, or the intention, of the SWP to permit such freedom. So we rely on ‘leaked’ documents on the Socialist Unity site. And oracles."

Anonymous said...

I would be reluctant to place any crendence in Andy Newman's account. Maybe he was wrong, the Oxford full-timer was right, maybe the kids from Abingdon would have drifted away anyway. Without hearing the other side I wouldn't base an argument on it.
The SWP used to be very good at developing a cadre, and many of them have stuck with it (obviously not as many as have moved through). I would put a lot of the lack of concern over formal democracy down to a high level of agreement between the vast majority of members and the leadership over a long time; why get too upset with the lack of faction rights, etc. when you don't have any noticeable differences with the CC. There is no need for Romulus to account for the existence of Rome.

Dave Riley said...

The DSP here has decided to make its internal bulletins available from its bookshops.Many DSP members (but not a majority) don't support that.

Ultimately what party members democratically prefer -- rather than what political voyeurs demand-- is the main issue.

Dave Riley said...

The very rough notion I explored in this thread got me thinking some more -- so I then followed it up with a bit more pontification on the topic relating to the SWP and the French NPA, here.

I think I also feel a further isntalment coming on...