DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM AND MISTAKES
Article published in SWP Internal Bulletin No. 2, October 2013.
Mistakes? We’ve made a few – but then again too few to mention
Around a hundred party members, many of them prominent, have signed the “Statement for Our Revolutionary Party” (IB 1), which tells us that “we have maximum discussion, then we make a decision, sometimes with a vote, and finally we unite in action.” This particular point was made to me repeatedly during the period before the Special Conference. Indeed, younger comrades gazed at my wizened features in apparent disbelief that one so old could not understand something so simple.
In fact I accept the principle as far as it goes. I don’t even think it is particularly “Leninist” – it’s common sense. You couldn’t run an allotment, let alone a revolutionary party, without some recognition of the need to accept and act on agreed positions.
But if I accept it as far as it goes, the problem is that it doesn’t go very far. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered. In particular, the question of what we do when it is clear that we have made a mistake. Everyone agrees that both the CC and the membership are fallible and sometimes make mistakes. So what do we do about it?
In fact a simple debate-vote-act model will not do. In real life there are many other factors, notably the timescale.
On a demonstration we may have to decide whether to confront the police or back off. The appointed stewards have to decide in a matter of seconds and everyone must follow – for half to advance and half retreat would be a total disaster. Any analysis comes after the event.
In other cases there is no such urgency. With the Respect operation it probably needed at least two years to see if the strategy was working. It needed unanimous support – unless we put all our energies into the project, we couldn’t be sure whether it was viable. But at the same time we needed constant discussion, monitoring and evaluation.
And there are rare occasions when the mistake is so grievous that it has to be challenged, whatever the formal constitutional position. Presumably nobody thinks Tony Cliff and his comrades should have accepted the majority vote in the Club (Fourth International) and agreed to support North Korea in 1950 (if he had our organisation would not exist). Or that Communist Party members in 1956-57 should have accepted the majority vote and supported the Russian tanks in Budapest.
If we’re on the wrong road and are driving into a swamp, the first priority is to change direction, whatever previous votes have been taken. To reject that is formalism of the worst sort.
It is bourgeois politicians who refuse to change their minds or admit mistakes. We remember “the lady’s not for turning”. They are scared that any turn or apology will damage their image and their career. Revolutionaries are not afraid to look reality in the face. “Only the truth is revolutionary,” as Marx is reputed to have said.
At the start of both the 1984 miners’ strike and the campaign against the Poll Tax we took positions which were, if not incorrect, veering towards abstract propaganda. After the failure of the Orgreave picket the strike was forced onto the defensive; when it became clear that local government workers would not refuse to implement the Poll Tax, the campaign shifted to non-payment. In both cases we had to shift our position sharply. Fortunately we then had a leadership that was both flexible and confident enough to make the turns.
In 1978, at the time of the second ANL Carnival, the National Front called a demonstration in Brick Lane on the same day. The CC quite correctly decided not to cancel the Carnival – that would have given the NF a power of veto over all such events. But the CC was culpable in failing to ensure that enough comrades were sent to Brick Lane. The next week Socialist Worker carried a front-page apology signed by Tony Cliff personally. Such an apology didn’t weaken Cliff’s standing in the party – it strengthened it because comrades appreciated his honesty and willingness to learn from mistakes.
Democracy in a revolutionary party is not a matter of formal “rights”; it is a question of responsibility. Every member of the party has an imperative duty to prevent the party taking a course which may damage it irreparably.
Alex Callinicos stresses that “a strong political leadership, directly accountable to the annual conference, campaigns within the organisation to give a clear direction to our party’s work”. But leadership is also about learning from the membership, and, through the membership, from the class. As Cliff used to say, the more members we have in the party, the more ears to the ground we have.
When the pit closures were announced in 1992 the SWP raised the demand for a general strike. At first sight this seemed to contradict the way we had always rejected such a slogan as ultra-left. But, for a couple of weeks at least, it fitted the mood in workplaces and union branches up and down the country. Paper sales and recruitment showed we were swimming with the stream.
How did we get it right? Not because the CC were studying the Financial Times. But because the centre was constantly on the phone to organisers and key activists throughout the country. The leadership learned from the membership.
Everyone should read Tony Cliff’s article “The balance of class forces in recent years” at http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1979/xx/balance1.htm . Cliff was telling the membership a bleak and unpopular truth – that there was a “downturn” in struggle, and that many of the hopes we had nourished during the seventies were doomed to disappointment. But also note his method – to quote extensively from the experience of industrial militants. Cliff’s greatness was not that he was a clever fellow or a good writer, but that he knew how to learn from the membership.
The present leadership seem to have a rather different attitude. It is indisputable that we have been through a very bad year (by far the worst I remember in fifty years’ membership). But Party Notes gives us only good news, and doesn’t mention the setbacks. Small wonder that many comrades, doubtless often wrongly, are sceptical about the achievements that are reported.
Or again, there is the failure to give us honest membership figures (even when conference delegacies are based on them). The leadership seems to think we are such sensitive souls that we shall be distressed to learn that the membership is nothing like the ten thousand we claimed some years back. (When I joined we had 106 members, and I should not be unduly demoralised to learn that the real figure is 1500 or less.)
In fact the CC’s attitude to the membership is profoundly insulting. I wonder what new members think when they discover how the CC is “protecting” them from the truth. The CC seems not only unwilling to learn from the membership, but to positively distrust us.
Over the past year we’ve lost around 500 members, seen our student work largely collapse, had a Marxism little over half the size of 2012, and lost the support of much of our periphery. The CC has at best tolerated, and at worst encouraged, a situation of near civil war in some branches, where good activists are insulted and marginalised. And it isn’t over yet – without a genuine change of course we risk losing many more comrades.
One of the most fundamental principles of democratic centralism is that the leadership are accountable to the membership. Yet after this disastrous year all eleven CC members are putting themselves forward for re-election. (Even the England cricket team makes one or two changes after a particularly humiliating defeat.) And though it is widely rumoured that the CC is deeply divided, the membership have no information to enable them to decide who should be in the new leadership.
Apart from Alex Callinicos all the existing CC are comrades who have spent most of their political lives as full-timers. (And of the four proposed additions, all are or have been full‑timers.)
Now I’ve known a lot of full-timers over the years. They are dedicated comrades who work very hard for far less money that they could earn in other jobs. They are in no sense a bureaucracy. Yet it is true that those whose political experience has been very largely inside the apparatus will tend to put loyalty to the organisation as such rather higher than the rest of us might. In a crisis like the present one, this can be a real problem.
Moreover the role of the working class and workplace organisation is at the very centre of our politics. But on the present CC not a single member has any significant experience of workplace organisation. Two of the newcomers are experienced trade unionists – a start, but a very small one.
Finally, how should the debate be conducted? A lot of people have expressed hostility to “permanent factions”. I can only agree with them. I believe that factional organisation tends to polarise discussion, and make the exchange of ideas more difficult. Factions are a last resort, only to be used in exceptional circumstances. But anyone who thinks the present situation is not wholly exceptional must have been, to adapt a comment of Julie Waterson’s, living in a supermarket freezer cabinet.
The experience of the Special Conference suggests that some comrades think it is enough to win the vote and then stamp their feet. If they do, they may find that some comrades will vote with their feet.