A little while ago while going through some old boxes I’d taken out of stories I came across this “hidden gem”. My 2002 contribution to the Socialist Workers Party’s Internal Bulletin “for an open and flexible party”. I’ve been promising to type it up ever since and since the compendium on the current SWP crisis is still growing I thought it was about time. Before we begin I want to make a couple of quick points.
First, it is written in SWP speak. While I’ve come a long way since in purging my language of arcane, pseudo-religious jargon ten years ago I was just setting out on that path, and I want to ask forgiveness for it. I can assure you it makes me cringe more than it does you.
Second, it’s also written in a very specific way for the publication and audience it was designed for. I suspect it comes across as sycophantic and banal at points particularly at the beginning. Although I was tempted to take these out, I thought it best to provide the unedited text. I hardly need to add that with the benefit of hindsight and my own political development I’d write a very different document today.
I do want to say that phrases like “we have a fantastic political leadership” or “The SWP has a vigorous democratic structure” were there purely and simply to provide a little sugar on the shit sandwich and no-one, but no-one inside the organisation would have thought it meant that the SWP had a fantastic political leadership. Please don’t read the first few paragraphs and give up because you’ll get a very false impression of what this contribution was all about.
Enough of the pre-amble, let’s get stuck in!
For an open and flexible party
The situation today
Across the world new and fierce struggles spring up on a daily basis. The neo-liberal agenda of a global capital without restrictions has called from the dust a resistance found on every continent.
More and more the phrase “the 1930s in slow motion” comes into its own. Once seen as a strange eccentricity the polarisation between left and right plus crucial battles across the globe confirm its utility.
Some areas clearly lag behind others in Britain, but on a deep level we see ourselves as a movement pushing forwards, rather than getting pushed back.
Using party democracy
A Leninist organisation responds to change in its structures, activities and agitation. This response requires a full democratic debate, and a united turn to meet these new challenges.
The SWP has a vigorous democratic structure, which allows the membership full participation. We should use that process to thrash out the real debates in the party on key questions such as structures (or lack of them), and the direction of the Socialist Alliance.
This democratic process comes to life when led by the membership and we should take it upon ourselves to do the following simple tasks:
(a) Distribute the pre-conference bulletins among all the members in our areas.
(b) Contribute constructive, concise and useful articles to these bulletins.
(c) Build the aggregates into revolutionary forums, where the maximum number of comrades can thrash out our current difficulties.
(d) Have elections to conference based on who is suited to go rather than who is free that weekend.
(e) After conference we need to take its directives back and embed them in our daily practice.
One area comrades find frustrating is our new “structures”. Whilst no one argues for a return to the old-style branches, we have been more successful in wiping out branches than we have in building anything in their place.
The respect and activity around the party is impressive – but our numbers, particularly in key industries, are far too low. We need a perspective to become a party with mass influence. This is why the united front approach is so valuable for us. We have been able, through an insistence on democracy, and diversity, to unite with significant forces over a wide range of issues.
United fronts consistently pose a problem of balance. Taking a leading role in campaigns puts pressure on us to dissolve our politics. Our energy and focus often means there are successes but once the campaign is spent, so is our influence. Alternatively, we can cut ourselves off from outside forces and take days off from being in the SWP to substitute for actual members of the united front. Neither approach allows for significant recruitment.
I believe the key to this balance lies in:
(a) a fraternal, anti-sectarian attitude towards those we work with – no matter how wrong they are on some questions.
(b) a deep commitment to see campaigns flourish, regardless of narrow sectional interests.
(c) political clarity and profile within united fronts.
The need for clear, user friendly party structures to build effective membership can’t be underestimated. Talk of cells has not been helpful. A cell structure is designed for illegal work where conditions are harsh. This isn’t our situation. We need fraternal TEAMS of socialists based around their activities, who are structured so they can meet up, discuss and organise. These teams must be open and accessible to the outside world rather than closed cliques.
There’s been a shift towards breaking the clique mentality but our ability to get together and thrash out a way forward locally has been severely diminished by the pace of events and our necessary structural changes.
The role of the centre
Without wishing to brown nose, we have a fantastic political leadership in the SWP. The strategy of “fighting on every front” has been vital to placing us in developing movements, and politicising the struggle. This strategy could only have been led from the centre, and a reliance on “loose autonomous units” would have been disastrous.
Having said this there are questions to ask about the role of the centre in a revolutionary party.
In the terrible event that a mysterious plague killed the entire Central Committee tomorrow then the membership, wiping tears from our eyes, would elect a new CC and crack on with the task in hand. However, if the membership were wiped out the CC could not elect a new party and that would be that for the SWP.
The party can’t exist on an abstract level – it’s the members who carry the party with them into their communities, their workplaces, their colleges. The party centre with full time workers, editors and organisers are absolutely necessary for that party to exist because they facilitate the membership arming them with papers and ideas, coordinating the struggle at a national level and are well placed to generalise members’ experiences.
The political development of the rank and file is crucial to its combativity. Three key elements to developing cadre are:
(a) a strong identity of interest between member and organisation – this is MY paper, MY demonstration. This cannot be brought about by telling members to identify with the party, but by building a relationship of trust.
(b) every member given responsibility, in order to build a trained and experienced cadre.
(c) a clear commitment on the part of the party centre that our members are gold dust. Their initiative, intellect and self confidence should be encouraged to flourish.
Unfortunately comrades are not always proud, enthusiastic members of the SWP, and whilst we cannot produce miracles a happy party where every member is a leader is a worthwhile goal to work for.
The ownership of the party by its members is the core of an organisation that’s going places. A happy party both recruits and retains members.
Sometimes we confuse the “necessity of a centralised organisation” with the “infallibility of the centre”. There needs to be a recognition that the members are not just supporters of the CC, we are leaders ourselves.
We can both enhance our publications and schools, and increase the level of training and identification with the party.
To help with this process we should push for Socialist Worker and Socialist Review to have a vigorous, concerted push to get ordinary members to write for our publications. We must break from the habit of using the same clique of names in every issue.
Also, a good number of speakers at Marxism, cadre schools, etc, should be drawn from the ordinary members to reaffirm that the SWP is owned by its members, not the other way round.
Capitalism drums into the worker that they’re useless, they’re unimportant, can change nothing and are reliant on others to think for them. It is important that the centre cuts against these tendencies rather than reinforce them.
Socialists affirm the vitality and potential of working class people. One of our tasks is to raise people up through struggle, creating revolutionary consciousness, where we can say with confidence and pride – “To hell with your orders, we are in charge now!”
Our structures need to draw a balance between the required centralism of a combat organisation and the essential democracy that transforms The Party into Our Party, its mistakes and victories our mistakes and victories.
Our skills can be nurtured or squashed by the party’s political culture. One way the centre could stifle the imagination and optimism of the rank and file is by dictating every detail of local work from an office in London. Perhaps we should ask ourselves how key some questions we fight over really are, and what effect the fight itself has upon our members.
Take an abstract example. A comrade is keen to have a forum, “Asylum seekers welcome here”, organises a speaker and phones up the centre to put it in the paper. They check to see whether this speaker, who has not been appointed by the centre, is appropriate and ring back saying “OK go ahead.” Then they add, “But the title should be ‘If capital can cross borders, why can’t people?’” The comrade, perhaps wrongly, is uneasy, the title seems a bit abstract and wordy. They discuss this “issue” at length. The centre then puts its own title in the paper and the member puts up posters with the original title. Reproduce this scenario in every aspect of work the comrade engages in.
A clear hierarchy of centre over member is established and the member reacts by losing respect for orders. The centre’s personnel has barely disguised hostility and contempt for the members. The party is not a happy party.
I think Lenin gave this example. If in your local area a local member says “Marxism is my religion” they are expressing themselves poorly, an insistence on particulars is unproductive and puerile. If Bukharin writes a book about how Marxism is a religion – that needs political opposition.
A hard-nosed and belligerent attitude to every detail of local work would not be helpful even if it worked. It’s more about enforcing who’s in charge than it is about building a vibrant, confident party.
Members should be engaged without pride and control freakery. Centralism must combine with genuine respect for members.
Let’s build a culture that emphasises that we are more than a cog in the party machine, but are a living asset, with a real contribution to make.
Central to this is party notes, the official organising tool of the CC. Like most of the party there has been a real shift in tone for the better, particularly in the last month or so. There seems to be much less naming and shaming and bizarre [and potentially offensive] instructions like “Shit Marxism”. However, again we need to assess how effective this organ is.
Let’s take an abstract edition. PN might say in its first subject headers “Go mental for A”, “All out for B” and “Everyone to C”. I’m curious as to whether this method works. A, B and C will all be important and worthy events, but can I physically do what I’m being instructed to do? A lot of the time I can’t, and this encourages me to take PN with a pinch of salt.
PN can be repetitive and cliched in its language – perhaps a thesaurus is in order? It appears to be caught in a permanent orgasmic rush without ever reaching the relief of a post-coital doze. Like the speaker who does nothing but shout, all emphasis is lost.
PN should develop into a real resource for the party and move away from its function as three line whip. Circulating information and prioritising events without the “barked orders on parade” tone would be far healthier and no doubt more comrades would read PN in the first place [the recent guides to flyposting and Indymedia are examples of good practice].
All of us are learning to speak a new language to fit the movement, a new way of talking to workmates and allies that helps us become more approachable. PN can help us make that shift.
We need a debate on the nature of our involvement in broad lefts and rank and file groups. There is a whole history of where revolutionaries have engaged with reformist “lefts” in the unions. Sometimes this has been a success, sometimes a catastrophic failure.
Broad lefts seem fruitful areas of work when we are making headway in the union, but unless our focus is on building in the rank and file our foundations are made of sand.
There are two levels that comrades at work currently operate at. The first is a high industrial level where we have led strikes, organised workplaces and developed a consistent union organisation. Our comrades fought for this and need to be congratulated.
The second level is of those more inexperienced comrades, who don’t know how to organise a union, get politically active inside their workplaces, or combat a right wing leadership. These members are often very good in other areas but lack confidence, know how and support in their workplace intervention. In order to develop that second level into the first we can’t simply rely on chance. My suggestion is twofold.
First, let’s use rank and file papers as schools for revolutionary workers. A resource, advising on how to write and distribute rank and file bulletins for their workplace, what to do when the right wing have a dead hand on struggle, how to get a strike going, how to recruit to a union, etc. In other words, the building blocks of industrial work.
Second, let’s take a leaf out of the old CP’s book and develop support structures for our members. Here the less experienced are taken under the wing of experienced trade unionists or the industrial department who gives advise, support and a bit of physical help. This ensures no comrade is left out in the cold where they get nowhere and would give a serious edge to our attempts to build among workers.
Perhaps this is ambitious given our present size, but to attempt this strategy would be better than a haphazard approach.
Building the party
This is my party and I’m proud to be a member. I’m proud of the achievements we’ve made together and I want more. The inspiring people I find myself in company with are a constant reminder of our potential to resist.
What’s true for me is also true for the party. We are right to be proud of the historically significant struggles we have been part of and led – but we can be better. If we adapt to the opening struggle, by developing our organisation into a flexible, welcoming party we can build a real combat force to rock capitalism.