Russell Brand v Jeremy Paxman on “revolution” plus bureaucratic centralism of the SWP (but not the Socialist Party)



The following is a letter I am sending to the Weekly Worker, the newspaper of the CPGB (PCC). Although they have edited my letters, generally quite considerably, sometimes to fit their own agenda rather than for reasons of space or clarity, they have never distorted the meaning of them. This one is much longer than my usual letters, however, partly because there are important tangential points to make and because it’s also intended for this blog, so I certainly don’t mind them editing it quite severely!

The CPGB’s Mark Fischer and I went to the session on “What is the role and relevance of a revolutionary party today?” at Socialism 2013, an educational event organised by the Socialist Party of England and Wales (SP), on Saturday. I thought the title quite remarkable for an organisation that has generally shied away from the word “revolution”, but times have changed – if even the middle class comedian Russell Brand can talk about it in the pages of the New Statesman and on Newsnight where he brilliantly and wittily outwitted Jeremy Paxman, then obviously the Socialist Party has to too. Indeed, the current issue of their newspaper The Socialist at the event had a review of the Brand-Paxman debate (which now has nearly 9 million views on YouTube). It was particularly positive that the person speaking on the subject was the editor of The Socialist, Sarah Sachs-Eldridge.

Mark said some positive things about the SP, but accused it of operating on the basis of “bureaucratic centralism” rather than “democratic centralism” (which is how the SP claims it operates – a lot of democracy making decisions with a central leadership providing direction and the party intervening “as one” in campaigns/other organisations). I agree with many of the points made in various articles made in the pages of the Weekly Worker over the years about a large democratic deficit in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), entailing much more centralism than democracy, the bureaucracy on their central committee having too much power, and restricted rights for individual members and factions – and consequently “bureaucratic centralism” is a fair term for that organisation. This is a major reason, on top of the terrible handling of the allegations of rape by their former national secretary Martin Smith (Comrade Delta), for a split earlier in the year (to form the International Socialist Network) and the probable expulsion of another faction (Rebuilding the Party) after the SWP’s next conference in December. The first split is already involved in Left Unity (LU) and it seems to me, as a rank-and-file LU member, to be almost inevitable that the new faction will join LU too after its expulsion from the SWP.

I must disagree with Mark’s assertion that the SP operates in much the same way, based on my experience in that party (and its forerunners, the Militant Tendency and Militant Labour) from 1990-98.

Mark’s justification for his assertion was that internal debates in the SP took place almost entirely internally (in particular in factional documents and meetings, internal bulletins, branch meetings and aggregates, with debates between opposing factions in which there was equal time allocated to both) rather than in publications read by “the class” (he specifically mentioned The Socialist) – with an exception made in the debate to leave the Labour Party in Scotland, where a debate also took place between the opposing factions in the pages of the mass media (but left-wing) Guardian newspaper. Just because the Bolsheviks had such discussions in public 100 years ago, before the Russian Revolution in October 1917, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best way to conduct such discussions nowadays. [In these days of the internet, it is very difficult to keep internal discussions private and the CPGB has been sent internal SWP documents and a number of blogs have been and are being used to discuss debates within the SWP against the wishes of their leadership. The fact that this isn’t happening as far as the SP is concerned is surely a sign of lack of dissent due to it being a much more healthy and democratic party.]

In the period during which I first joined the Militant Tendency (in June 1990), during the mass campaign of non-payment against the poll tax (when Militant had started proving itself serious at defending non-payers and after becoming convinced enough about its ideas), there were some serious problems democratically, it must be said – including the fact that annual conferences (as required by the constitution) had repeatedly been postponed (supposedly due to the urgency of current events).

In fact, in early 1991, my region (Manchester/Lancashire) had an aggregate (open to all members in the region) at which the representative of the Executive Committee (EC – the leading body) of Militant with responsibility for the region, Nick Wrack (now the main leader of the Socialist Platform of Left Unity) proposed that candidates should be stood against Labour in the council elections in Liverpool (where Labour Party branches had their democratically elected candidates vetoed) and that an independent organisation should be set up in Scotland.

One of our members opposed the EC proposal that Nick put forward, and suggested instead that a special conference should be held to debate the “Scottish Turn” (as it became known) because there was plenty of time before the 1992 general election. He argued, however, that we should support standing in Liverpool because that was urgent. This resolution was carried, and I am proud to say that I voted for the resolution, due to it being a much more democratic way of operating, even though I thought that the Scottish Turn sounded like a really good idea (I joined despite rather than because of Militant operating in the Labour Party).

After about six months of discussion as well as conducting political activities including standing in Liverpool (the Wikipedia page on the Militant Tendency says: “All five Broad Left candidates won in the May 1991 local elections” but it is my recollection that five out of six won, of which two or three were in Militant), we discussed the Scottish Turn in my branch of Militant to elect delegates to the special conference – due to the number of members in my branch, we were allowed 3 delegates, and since 8 of us supported the Scottish Turn and 4 opposed it, 2 delegates (including myself) who supported it and 1 who opposed it attended the conference. [Incidentally, one of the 4 who opposed the Turn was the Labour councillor John Byrne, who ended up voting for cuts and later losing his seat to the Liberal Democrats.]

Contrast this very democratic approach with the way the SWP operated before their March conference, with the opposing faction given much less time to speak and with a situation whereby if the leadership line was narrowly voted for, no delegates in the opposing faction were allowed as conference delegates. Note: This is second (or third) hand knowledge, taken from the Weekly Worker and elsewhere, and the SWP may not have operated the same way in every area of Britain.

We were not mandated to vote a particular way at the conference, instead we listened to the arguments and made our own minds up on that basis. The majority position of supporting the Scottish turn (which I voted for) won 93% of the vote. The minority later split from Militant – publishing Socialist Appeal, with the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) splitting from Militant’s international organisation called the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

One thing that Mark Fischer was completely unaware of (until I told him after the meeting whereupon he suggested me writing a letter to the Weekly Worker) was that there was an unofficial CWI mailing list that was completely unmoderated. In fact, it was me who set it up (and ran it until I resigned in 1998) when I came across two other comrades on internet discussion forums, one in Britain and one in Belgium. It was known about by the British centre but (judging by the proportion of members on the list, only particularly promoted in Belgium and the USA). I operated it using a mailing list service at Manchester Metropolitan University (where I was the main designer and sole implementer of an Artificial Intelligence/simulation language called SDML). At one point, they changed the software so that unmoderated lists were no longer supported, so I wrote a computer program (running on my work computer that was kept on 24 hours a day because it was a “server”) in Smalltalk (the language I had expertise in with my work on SDML) to approve all messages automatically. Fortunately, my boss was away that week!

There was even a faction fight (the only particularly serious item of disagreement) that largely took place on the list between two factions in the USA (with the internet being a particularly useful way of conducting it due to the problems of distance and the high proportion of people in the USA with internet access compared with other countries at the time). In the end, 6 members were expelled from the CWI and set up their own organisation called Labor’s Militant Voice. The only time I was asked to remove anybody from the CWI mailing list was when a leading member asked me to remove those 6 comrades due to their expulsion. [Contrast this with the way the SWP historically (and continue to do so today) strongly discouraged their members from using the internet, and complained that a similar list to mine had some people on it who were no longer members. If there were some ex-CWI members on my list, them staying on never caused any difficulties!]

Later on, there was a debate about changing the name of the organisation from Militant Labour to the Socialist Party. As was pointed out in the discussion at Socialism 2013, there were a lot of internal documents discussing this issue. Any comrade could contribute and (as a rank-and-file member) in the last of these bulletins, I argued that since we were no longer in the Labour Party, we should be more openly revolutionary. The transitional programme proposed by Leon Trotsky has a problem of coming across as reformist. I’ve just taken a look at the “What we stand for” section at the bottom of the back page of the current edition of The Socialist, and I still think that it would be better if the paper said we need a revolution – in her summing-up, she said that implies “a bloody revolution”. I suggest they could call for “a (preferably peaceful) socialist revolution”.

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