Gregor Gall writes on the crisis developing in the Socialist Workers Party which has set the focus on issues of democracy on the far left.
The unfolding crisis in the biggest organisation on the far left in Britain, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), is fundamentally about its political method of operating. What has triggered the crisis is the way in which an allegation of rape by a woman member against a membership of the leadership has been handled internally.
What has happened is that this event has lifted the scales of many members’ eyes, and now with this epiphany, they now see their party and the way it is being run in a very different light. That the event is connected to sex and the way in which leaders of the far left treat woman members is now new. We only need to recall recent events in the Scottish Socialist Party over Tommy Sheridan and back in the 1980s the case of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP).
Democracy on the Left
When a member joins the SWP or some such far left organisation, they invariably join and sign up to an existing regime and set of politics. Few have the ability to make any changes to these as a condition of their joining. More often than not, even the most scrutinising new recruit will not have peered into the issues of the way the party they have just joined in run internally.
There is, indeed, almost no need – and no stimulus – to do so because when joining, new members do so in high level of enthusiasm and commitment to the existing regime and existing set of politics. Essentially, they want to be active within the existing set up and for the existing set of politics.
It is only when they have cause to question what the outcomes of their efforts and that of their party’s efforts are that the possibility of criticism arises. This mostly obviously comes from situations when the overblown perspectives of the organisation on its own growth and influence – or the course of the class struggle – are never realised or never come to fruition.
The normal response of individual members is to either leave, drop out of activity or try to ignore the patent feelings of the leadership by being active in their own small way in a non-party campaign.
Why does situation arise? It’s essentially about the way in which far left organisations are asymmetrically dominated by their leaderships. All subscribed to the Leninist convention of democratic centralism – which is often characterised as maximum discussion leading to a collective decision by which all members are then bound to and bound to implement so that the organisation acts as one.
Fine in theory but the practice is that the convention has been used to do three things. The first is to create a leadership which chooses who the leaders are in a self-perpetuating manner. This means the central committee chooses the central committee. The second is that the central committee selects and control the party workers. Party workers have no independence from the leadership. The third is that criticism of the leadership is not only seen as disloyal but also illegitimate, dysfunctional and deviant.
Having, in the case of the SWP, the ability to form a faction or speak to other members through an internal bulletin in the run up to annual conference means that for the rest of the year, criticism and debate are not just curtailed by stamped on.
And when the leadership wins its positions are each annual conference by dint of these methods, any critic has to wait for another nine-months before being able to constitutionally put their head above the parapet.
Only every so often does the kind of crisis that the SWP is going through now erupt and startle – if not dislodge – the leadership. But the tentacles of this authoritarian control structure remain because quite often there is no possibility of change.
Again either people leave in large numbers or the organisation disintegrates because there is no mechanism or culture available by which to replace the existing leadership yet also at the same time maintain the organisation. The future of the leadership becomes intrinsically bound up with the future of the organisation.
There has to be some midway point in far left organisations between the authoritarian regimes which enable everyone to act as one but with democratically arriving at what this should be, and on the other hand, the form of network where everything is loose, anything goes and people do their own thing (or not).
Both throw the different babies of effectiveness and democracy out with the bathwater. While the internal regime of the SSP was far from perfect, it did have legitimate permanent factions, a plurality of opinion and a genuine ability to criticise the leadership without being demonised or shouted down. This at least marks out the SSP experiment as something worth studying, not least because the internal regime was effective in making the organisation an credible organisation to those outside it.
If there is anything good to come out of the current SWP crisis, it must be that the far left looks at itself more closely and in a mature, self-reflective way in order to address these issues. It palpably is not growing as it should at the moment and the internal regime it adopts has much to contribute to this failing.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and author and editor of various books on the left in Scotland including the forthcoming, Is there a Scottish road to socialism? (2013).