Absence of Democracy

by Rehan Hafeez* and Sue Blackwell

We were long long-standing members of the SWP before we resigned in April 2002 (SB for 19 years; RH for 16 years) and now, some 16 months later, we wish to expound on the reasons for leaving an organisation that had played such a central role in our lives. In summary, we feel that the heart of the problem lies with the SWP's undemocratic structures and inability or refusal to work with others on an equal and democratic basis. This piece elaborates upon why we have come to this conclusion. Given that the SWP is the largest left organisation in England and Wales, this is not just a personal issue for two ex-members but also has very serious implications for the left, including prospects for left unity.

Let us first acknowledge our debt to the SWP - we do not intend to rewrite our histories given that honesty, integrity, and principle have been absolutely central to the decisions we have taken. Obviously, given that both of us had spent most of our political lives in the SWP, in the process devoting enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources (physical, financial, emotional, intellectual) - like so many others - to the organisation, the legacy is inevitably profound. We would probably never have become lecturers were it not for the SWP giving us an education in public speaking! We would still acknowledge that, in terms of our political world-view, we remain very close to the central tenets that the SWP, in theory at least, espouses (though the party seems to be veering away from some of these such as the unremitting opposition to oppression). Though our political commitment was never based on fealty to charismatic leadership, we nonetheless acknowledge that founder-member Tony Cliff remains perhaps the most remarkable person we ever met. And, without reservation, we acknowledge that people join the SWP for the highest of motives, to change the world for the better. And, in this endeavour, the party has undoubtedly achieved much that is laudable. Hence ours is not the sectarian diatribe of embittered ex-members. Rather, it is intended as a serious attempt to critique the organisation's failings.

We would like to imagine that most experienced, self-reflecting SWP members would agree (at least to themselves) that the SWP has a democratic deficit. But a deficit implies an excess of negatives over positives. The trouble is that in terms of party democracy, there is very little on the positive side, that is, there is not just a democratic deficit but an almost complete absence of democracy. Compounding this is also the absence of democracy's twin, accountability. Let us explain why we make this assertion.

We acknowledge that there is a trade-off between individual desires and beliefs, and the need for discipline and unity in a political organisation - so that it becomes an effective instrument for fomenting change. Therefore, the individual gives up some liberties for this wider good. But if one has a consistent democratic input in the debate and decision-making process then, providing there has not been a breach of fundamental principles, a member can abide by the decisions taken, even where he or she has disagreed. This, of course, is the essence of democratic centralism, the organising principle which the SWP purportedly advocates. The reality, however, is very different. Democratic debate, discussion, and decision-making necessitate voting - yet party members within the organisation rarely vote. Moreover, there are practically no democratic levers available to alter the structures and institutions, including the behaviour of full-timers and the leadership. It is a ferociously hierarchical, top-down organisation: the 'line' is set by the Central Committee (CC) and enforced on the ground by full-time organisers. So, rather than democratic centralist it is, in fact, "command centralist". Disagreement with the line incurs the wrath of the organiser and the admonishment: 'this is democratic centralism'. But it is emphatically not: centralism without the democracy is what characterises Stalinism. Of course it is taboo to use the S-word about a Trotskyist organisation, but there is no better name for it.

Indeed, for most members, their contact with the party's structures is dominated by the relationship with the organiser, who exercises a great deal of political power over them. Yet the organiser is not elected by the members - rather is imposed by the centre. Furthermore, there are no party mechanisms for controlling his/her actions, demanding accountability, or procedures for his/her removal. Hence, knowing that they are untouchable by grassroots members and invariably given full support by the CC, organisers tend to be characterised by astonishing insensitivity and arrogance. It is important to recognise that the relationship between organisers and the CC is mutually reinforcing. Because the former are appointed by, and report to, the latter, their loyalty is cast iron. Similarly, because the CC appoints and directs organisers, they back them to the hilt. And because practically all CC members are cocooned in an office in London, they rely on organisers (with usually a small group of "leading" activists with whom they work closely) for information "on the ground". Not surprisingly, information travelling up to the centre tends to be massaged to fit in well with the CC's "perspectives" and "party lines" - and of course mistakes and errors of judgement are not likely to be admitted. In regard to admitting mistakes, the same applies, a forteriori, to the CC - to the point of infallibility. The undemocratic/unaccountable nature of this key party nexus explains well the disastrous behaviour of the party in Birmingham.

The counter-argument is that the organiser is chosen by the CC whose members have been elected, so that there is a democratic input. But this is a flimsy defence - in fact there is no defence against the charge. This takes us on to the election of the CC itself - the highest body of the party. The obvious question to ask is: how democratic is the process for electing the CC? The answer is that it is a sham democracy. Ostensibly, the CC is elected at the annual conference by delegates sent by the branches (or districts, or whatever format is in existence at the time): usually one delegate for every 10 members. But what invariably happens is that the CC recommends a 'slate' of candidates, and asks whether there are any other slates. We have never known of an alternative slate being put forward, so that in effect the CC elects itself. So, for example, when Tony Cliff or another CC member presented a slate to conference, everyone quietly nodded and matters could quickly proceed to the next agenda item. Occasionally, one or two members of the CC are removed and replaced by new members but, operating remarkably like the nomenklatura system of the Stalinist states, this is done by the CC itself. They earmark who can be 'brought on' (invariably from the pool of existing full-timers and organisers) and the leading members quietly cast aside those who are felt no longer to be suitable. We have come to the conclusion that this slate system is intrinsically undemocratic.

The composition of the CC is never announced to the membership, nor are the political reasons for any change in its personnel ever provided - confirming again the lack of democracy and accountability. It is no surprise that under this self-selecting system, so many CC members have been in post for over ten years, and some for over twenty years. In fact we know of no other party in Britain that has members in leading positions for such long periods. It could be argued that if the CC is doing a good job, then why change it. Fine, except that given the lack of accountability, there is no way to assess what a good job is, let alone whether it has been done or not. But the more fundamental problem is that this method strongly acts against the democratic spirit and stamps out critical thinking. This helps explain why members tend to become submissive, passive, and hidebound - being spoon-fed the politics without thinking or evaluating counterarguments. What happened to Marx's dictum 'doubt everything'? It certainly does not get applied to the party line. And when the CC railroads through a line with undemocratic practices such as packing meetings, most members meekly accept the argument - popular with Stalinists in the past - that 'it had to be done': a mantra that excuses away the most nefarious of practices. In consequence, members end up with the position, 'see no evil, hear no evil: my party is always right, no matter how wrong'. Alas, such blind loyalty was precisely the position of members of Stalinist parties that the SWP had so powerfully and rightly railed against. In our view the end never justifies undemocratic, abusive, means. If you do not fight for socialism by democratic and inclusive methods, what you will end up with will certainly not be socialism.

When it comes to the editorship of the party's publications, democracy is completely out of the question. The argument seems to be that editors should be drawn from the CC (though this is not made clear so we are guessing somewhat), and their authority stems from conference. In reality, the jobs are farmed out between CC members or those very close to them - and as with the very long period of CC membership, so it is with editorship (15-25 years so far for the three main publications). Again, how many other publications' editors can claim such longevity? But there is a pernicious aspect to this undemocratic closed shop: critical articles (from a left perspective by party and non-party contributors alike) can be kept out so that there is a subtle and indeed not-so subtle form of censorship at play. Very occasionally, critical articles appear in the Pre-conference Bulletins (for members only), but these tend to be tangential and coded rather than a frank expression of doubt, disagreement, or misgivings. The vast bulk of the membership, even when having grave doubts about policies and structures, would never dream of raising their head above the parapet. Fear of rocking the boat quickly becomes ingrained, and acts as a powerful control on dissent.

The party continuously advocates the principle "never lie to the class". But in Birmingham we have witnessed the most flagrant of lies by party members that have been defended by the leadership. The party has also espoused another principle: never tell the truth to members regarding membership figures. It has been years since these have been revealed (even when they were, anyone who had been a branch membership secretary knew they tended to be grossly inflated). The reason for this, we believe, is that the party membership has declined enormously from about the mid-1990s - we estimate its size to be about a third to a half of what it was then. The same is true for the numbers attending the annual 'Marxism' event - numbers seem to have inexorably fallen. A democratic, accountable, organisation would regularly reveal the true membership figures to its members as of right, and if they have fallen, provide an explanation for this. It would also enable ordinary members to demand accountability and, if need be, allow for the removal of CC members deemed responsible. But alas, none of this happens and SWP members quietly accept what is not given to them.

The undemocratic culture of the party moulds the political character of members - this is entirely to be expected. We hasten to add that some (though sadly far too few) do, in the face of all this, continue to maintain their independence of thought and integrity. But there is no doubt that on the left, the reputation of party members has fallen. There is the constant refrain that in non-party gatherings, others are mystified at the mechanical behaviour of SWP members, always voting the same way, talking, and behaving like automatons. From this they understandably conclude that there is another agenda at play and so doubt the sincerity and integrity of party members - rightly attributing to them mauvaise fois. Once the epithet "party hack" sticks, it is very rarely removed. Invariably, it is often the most active members (who tend to be the local "leadership") who are designated as mindless hacks.

Though the party's central structures have never been democratic and accountable, in the past, the local branches (which no longer exist) were often characterised by healthy discussion and debate - where locally, at least, genuine democratic centralism could operate. This was especially true when there were no organisers in the city or district. Organisers in our experience, in remorselessly pushing through what they perceived to be the "party line", stifled branch democracy. A few experienced members could, through cunning manoeuvres, minimise the destructive influence of organisers; but this was probably very much the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, the shutting down of branches was largely forced, given that they had became moribund as a result of the decline in membership. Hence, the one party forum for genuine democracy was snuffed out.

The activist comedian Mark Thomas, in a fiery polemic in the New Statesman, referred to the 'fastest growing party in the country', namely ex-SWP members. Actually the charge is a serious one. As we have said, membership appears to have declined sharply, and we also think that the average age of members has shot up. Why this should be so has never been discussed in party circles - another great taboo subject. At one level, which Lenin was well aware of, one would expect membership of revolutionary organisations to be minimal in periods of low class struggle. Given that in Britain, strike statistics for almost 10 years have been the lowest since records began, this is bound to hit revolutionary organisations sharply - the political terrain has been very tough indeed. Nonetheless, at another level, the party should take responsibility for the "revolving door" nature of its membership. The record for retaining members is a very poor one - and we argue that a crucial reason for this is that so many members are alienated by the absence of democracy and accountability, and resent being treated as paper-selling fodder, to be harangued and bullied by full-timers.

The truly bright sparks in recent years on the international horizon for left politics have been the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. What is crystal clear from these is that millions of people wish to see an alternative to the sham democracy (or no democracy) of the present world. They are certainly not going to tolerate undemocratic and authoritarian practices of left organisations - and this perhaps helps explain why they have not joined those such as the SWP in any significant numbers. The lesson is abundantly clear: without a relentless commitment to genuine democracy, accountability, and civilised debate, the project of winning a better world will remain grounded. The SWP shows no signs of understanding this.

* Rehan Hafeez is a pseudonym: I have replaced his real name at his own request.

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It was last updated on 1st May 2008.