For our international readers the SWP (Socialist Workers’ Party) is a Trotskyist organisation, associated with the International Socialist Tendency based around the ideas of its founder Tony Cliff, and is widely considered to be the largest (and possibly also the most influential) Leninist party in the UK. ---- The SWP has been in the grip of an internal crisis since the beginning of 2013 when an allegation of rape was levelled against a senior member of the party Martin Smith (referred to as “Comrade Delta” in internal party communications). This allegation was handled by the convention of a kangaroo court – a disputes committee consisting of senior party members and friends of Martin Smith – who subsequently dismissed the female member’s claims. As the allegations, and the party’s handling of it, became more widely known, a number of SWP members have very publicly left the party.
Following this there have been accusations of a culture of misogyny within the organisation. A former ‘Socialist Worker’ (the party’s paper) journalist has also claimed that “feminism” was “used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters”. The ensuing revelations have been well covered by the far-Left blogosphere – on Penny Red, Harry’s Place and the Communist Party of Great Britain blogs – and makes little sense to rehash the content of these here. Suffice to say we share the bulk of rank-and-file SWP members’ revulsion at the way the central committee handled the allegations and, like many on the Left, express our unreserved criticism towards such misogynistic practices and the stark hypocrisy of individuals who claim to stand for women’s liberation.
It is not the intention of this article to seek to twist the knife in a little further in the same ways other Leninist sects have done, revelling in the demise of a much despised rival, when their own democratic practices leave much to be desired and are equally hidden from public scrutiny. We also reject the commentary of the mainstream media and liberal commentators who claim these revelations spell the end for a tradition of revolutionary politics in the UK. Such statements rely on the often repeated mischaracterisation that revolutionary change necessitates the imposition of dictatorship and party diktat. This does not speak to the true character of the revolutionary struggles carried out by the popular classes, nor does it speak to the real and living revolutionary alternative to which we identify – that of libertarian socialism.
Our criticisms of Leninism are clear and principled. If you wish to understand more about them you can read our political platform or our literature or consult the library available on Libcom.org. The intention of this article is to put forward two alternative propositions – firstly, that the vision projected by the SWP of the need to build a popular and revolutionary working class movement is not one exclusively tied to the ideas and organisational practices of that party, and secondly, that an alternative exists to contemporary Trostskyist politics that both embraces dissent and democracy while arguing the benefits of political coherency and unity in the form of social anarchism.
We recognise that for a great number of people the SWP is a first base for their development within revolutionary politics. Many in the anarchist movement got “into politics” as a result of the lively and visible campaigns that organisations like the SWP organise. It is understandable why this happens. The SWP is an organisation that places a great stress on recruiting and mobilising its active membership. Many of us, isolated within a country with little to no far-Left tradition, are attracted to the vision that SWP organisers project of a popular working class movement able to push revolutionary politics to the forefront.
These ideas of building a popular working class movement, however, are not exclusively tied to the SWP. They are also not exclusively tied to the organisational structure that the SWP argue are necessary for their realisation – that of a strict organisational hierarchy and democratic centralism.
Marx argues that ideas and history have an important relationship to each other. We should heed these words when we consider the arguments made by a faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (known as the “Bolsheviks”) in 1903 who called for a loyal and disciplined cadre of “professional revolutionaries.” This organisational practice came to define the structure of revolutionary organisations across the world for the next hundred years. Some argue that these were the necessary operating practices for a revolutionary organisation in the repressive climate of the autocratic regime of the Russian Tsar. When the Bolshevik model proved ultimately successful in overthrowing both the Tsar and the following Provisional Government these subsequently became promoted as a successful model of revolutionary praxis worldwide.
Yet the reality was that it was the Bolshevik party’s pseudo-libertarian ideas, those laid down in Lenin’s “April Theses” and the “State and Revolution”, that were able to attract a mass base of support for the party so critical in the months leading up to the October revolution (ideas libertarian enough that many of the anarchists were fooled at the time). It was slogans such as “All Power to the Soviets!” and those that spoke to the existing organs of working class power that harmonised so well with the increasingly confident and autonomous practices of the Russian workers and peasantry, not cries for party discipline nor the practices of revolutionary terrorism or the repressions and execution of dissidents carried out by the Cheka.
Democratic centralism is less to do with the legacy of a “successful” revolution than with the monopolising influence of the Third International (the Comintern) over the ideology of international communist and trade union movements following the Bolshevik capture of state power. The prestige, practical and economic support offered for affiliation with Russia was a huge bargaining chip in securing adherence to the “Twenty-one conditions” Lenin laid out to the international socialist parties. Following Stalin’s rise to power these centralist principles were easily abused to ensure that sections of the international were acting in conformity with USSR foreign policy ambitions. Even opponents of Stalinism, like Trotsky and Bordiga, held to the essential organisational principles that Lenin laid down here. This is likewise the same tradition that Tony Cliff and the IS (later the SWP) was to spring from.
Now undoubtedly there is a degree of flexibility to the extent that democratic centralism is practised. For some Marxists these ideas are simply a means of operating a healthy organisational unity. With this particular vision we’d likely have little quarrel. The point is that the strict, hierarchical party model has little, if anything, to do with the mobilisation of popular working class movements and even less so with the process of revolution. Returning to the days in October, it was Lenin’s flexibility and the open and autonomous quality of the party sections thrown open by the influx of members, that marked his political practice over this decisive period (see Rabinowitch’s excellent history of the Petrograd Bolsheviks, “Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising”). For these few months the Bolshevik party was transformed from that tightly-knit cadre organisation into a mass party acting in common with the most advance sections of the workers movement. It was the ability of members at the grassroots to use party press and internal structures to push for an ever more radical position from the centre that characterised the shift in the comparatively conservative attitudes of the leadership at this time, not the other way around.
Revolutionary practice does require leadership, but this is not a leadership exercised through committees and party lines. It is a leadership that emerges through a dialogue and relationship of constructive activity within workplaces and communities. It is a relationship that emerges through small victories, patient work and an increasing level of trust. This is a process that specifist anarchists call “social insertion”. We aim to push social struggles on a revolutionary course while also recognising the practical lessons and ideas that evolve from it. Centralism, on the other hand, is unable to listen and anticipate these changes because it denies the critical influence of the grassroots. It is also, as the allegations involving Martin Smith clearly demonstrate, easily open to abuse from a tight clique at the centre. That is not to say that organisational unity cannot and should not exist. Rather it is a unity, much like social leadership, that evolves through an open and democratic culture of self-criticism and debate. In both cases we believe that our own tradition of specifist or "Platformist" anarchism offers viable lessons and guidance on how to build both influential and united political movements while embracing a culture of democracy and internal debate.
We understand that for many disillusioned SWP members the apparent alternatives of the warring Trotskyist sects may seem unappealing. The even smaller anarchist movement even less so. It seems highly unlikely that the central committee will ever revisit its handling of the allegations against Martin Smith and the SWP will likely continue operating in a state of recurring crisis and ensuing splits. It may be that there currently is no alternative on the level of their projected vision of a popular revolutionary party. The SWP itself certainly fails to live up to this, both politically and practically. That doesn’t mean that such an alternative cannot exist. In fact in the current political context such an alternative is more pressing than ever. What is required at this conjuncture is a convergence amongst all those interested in such an alternative on the need for a resolutely feminist, democratic and constructive movement able to look beyond the politics of both Leninism and democratic centralism towards the organisational tasks and social struggles that face us at this time.
* Commentary pieces represent the views of CA members and supporters to ongoing social and political issues.