Slates, Factions, and the British SWP

by Pham Binh on January 3, 2013

The British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is in the midst of another internal crisis. Four members were expelled on questionable grounds and now there are two factions, the Democratic Opposition  and the Democratic Centralism faction (hopefully Richard Seymour is among them), both of whom are defending the four. The recent formation of the Democratic Centralism faction by a minority on the Central Committee is particularly significant as it could have sufficient support at the conference to overturn the expulsions.

The underlying issue in the dispute is the SWP’s internal regime, specifically how it elects its Central Committee (CC). Like almost all Trotskyist groups, the SWP uses what is best described as a closed slate system. A slate system means a ticket of names is voted on as a single bloc. In and of itself, there is nothing untoward or undemocratic about a slate system. However, in the living context of the SWP, it is untoward and undemocratic. From a rank-and-file members’ perspective, any attempt to hold a single CC member accountable by removing them would require coming up with an entirely new leadership, usually upwards of a dozen people, since existing CC members will decline nomination as part of a rival slate (hence why the system is “closed”). Leading cadre outside the CC are usually appointed to their positions by the CC, so the likelihood of them accepting a position on an opposition slate is close to zero. Inevitably, the CC puts forward itself (sometimes with a few personnel changes) as a slate for re-election at the SWP’s annual convention. All of these factors acting in concert ensure that the CC’s slate is the only one convention delegates vote on in an open show of hands, aye or nay. Only once in the SWP’s history has there been a competitive election for the CC between slates at a party convention.

Elected as individuals via a secret ballot, not as a slate.

A one-slate party is no more democratic than a one-party state, and the closed slate system is not how Lenin and the Bolsheviks elected their CC. Tony Cliff noted in his Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 the following vote totals for the CC of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party elected by the sixth party congress held in summer of 1917:

“The names of the four members of the central committee receiving the most votes are read aloud: Lenin – 133 votes out of 134. Zinoviev 132, Kamenev 131, and Trotsky 131. (Loud applause)”

Here, we see that the party was led not by a politically homogeneous slate but by its most popular and outstanding figures whose differences with one other throughout 1917 in the middle of the revolution are well known (although not well understood) and need not be repeated here. The point here is twofold:

  1. The method of electing a CC used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks is nothing like that used by the SWP (and the whole of the International Socialist Tendency, including the American International Socialist Organization).
  2. This discrepancy has significant political ramifications for party life and practice. The closed slate system prioritizes political homogeneity and creates a leadership team that agrees on just about everything while a secret ballot for individuals prioritizes popularity with the rank and file and creates a leadership team marked by vibrant debates precisely because they do not agree on all issues all the time.

Lenin explicitly rejected the notion that the party’s leadership should be of one viewpoint or tendency at the 1918 party congress held to debate party policy on the controversial Brest-Litovsk treaty:

“Lomov very cleverly referred to my speech in which I demanded that the Central Committee should be capable of pursuing a uniform line. This does not mean that all those in the Central Committee should be of one and the same opinion. To hold that view would be to go towards a split.”

(He was arguing against the Left Communists’ decision to boycott the CC and won; the congress passed a resolution affirming the right of individual CC members to dissent publicly with the CC and Left Communists Bukharin and Uritsky were elected to a 15-member CC along with eight alternates by a secret ballot.)

Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP and the International Socialists

Without the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff to manage and resolve divisive disputes at the top, the party fractured and entered into a terminal decline within a decade of his passing. The closed slate system’s structural inability to properly regulate political differences among members of the CC played a major role in shaping the way the SWP shipwrecked itself in 2007-2010 when its political mistakes within RESPECT accumulated, leading to a series of painful debacles and waves of resignations/expulsions of long-time cadre. The CC made one of its members, John Rees, the scapegoat for all its errors and missteps as a collective leadership body and he was excluded from the CC slate at the party’s annual conference in 2009. Eventually, he and his co-thinkers split from the SWP and created Counterfire. CC member Chris Bambery followed suit in 2011 and created Scotland’s International Socialist Group.

Today, the United Kingdom has three competing groups based on Tony Cliff’s politics. An organization that claimed 10,000 members in the early 1990s has been reduced to three small rumps. For revolutionaries, the SWP’s difficulties are no cause for joy, although its competitors undoubtedly salivate at the prospect of grabbing the party’s market share by recruiting the politically inexperienced to their particular shibboleths.

This crisis is an opportunity for all those involved to go back to the drawing board, re-think their political assumptions, study Lenin and the Bolsheviks more closely and critically, reject what does not work, and forge a new left not hidebound by ridiculous rules, tradition for tradition’s sake, and the recruit-recruiters model that has failed to stop the austerity steamroller.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

James Heartfield January 4, 2013 at 6:48 am

Isn’t it up to the SWP how they organise their internal affairs? If there was a criticism of the political direction of the SWP that might be interesting, but the pointed thing about all of the recent factions is that they never criticise the SWP’s political direction, only claiming that the Central Committee has lost its way, or is unreasonably dominant, and that the point is to get back to the original conception of the International Socialists. To put it bluntly, the debate is about which personalities are in power, not about political principles. John Rees, Lindsay German, Chris Bambery et al have all left the SWP on the grounds that they are no longer in the leadership of the SWP. No doubt that is very hard for them, but of no interest to the working class. The only question worth asking is what, if any, are the political differences between these factions and their parent group.


Pham Binh January 4, 2013 at 10:42 am

Of course it’s up to the SWP how they organize themselves. That’s not what is in dispute. For them to claim that how they function and operate is somehow based on precedents and practices of the Bolsheviks and Lenin, however, is another matter. It’s not. Not by a long shot.

The SWP as far as I can tell has failed to unite the left inside and outside the working class against austerity; the SWP launched its own anti-cuts “coalition,” bringing the total number of such coalitions in the United Kingdom to three. It lurches from one get-members-quick scheme to another, from Right to Work to whatever new-fangled “campaign” of the moment it is now with a few prominent independents lending their name to it to make it look like something other than a front group. This has been the SWP’s practice since it was founded by Cliff. RESPECT was a bit different in that it attracted a broader array of social and political forces and began to develop a life of its own, and the SWP couldn’t handle it without cracking.

The problem isn’t the SWP’s orientation or direction but in what it fundamentally is: a machine organized around recruiting and retaining new members one by one. As such it has very little ability to lead, organize, or inspire the kind of mass struggle and self-empowerment among tens and hundreds of thousands outside its ranks necessary to stem the offensives of the 1%.


Scottish Trot January 4, 2013 at 8:42 am

(I was in the Glasgow Branch of the IMG at the same time as Comrade Bambury)

The closed slate system is reflected in the party press.

Socialist Worker, which I have read since the 70’s, is the most mundane, vacuous and boring writing imaginable. I would much rather read the Daily Telegraph than SW.

Supposedly aimed at first time readers it is an insult to the intelligence of ordinary people.


Pham Binh January 4, 2013 at 10:21 am

An open letter from an SWP member (kudos to CPGB for bringing all of this and the relevant documents to light):


James Heartfield January 4, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Pham Binh: ‘The problem isn’t the SWP’s orientation or direction…’.

That is where we disagree.


Pham Binh January 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I concede your point. A downward spiral is a big problem, one that is insurmountable when the organization has no internal mechanisms to allow for self-correction.


Harley Filben January 4, 2013 at 8:24 pm

Well, this is the problem. The SWP doesn’t *have* an orientation or direction – it is completely disoriented and directionless (whatever one thinks of John Rees, he was at least a man with a plan, if a futile one), and keeps itself together WRP-style, by lying to itself about membership, attendance at major events and its general significance in events as a whole.

We might *hope* that it corrects all its political errors (whatever we judge them to be), but it’s a vain hope as things stand: because the bureaucratic mode of organisation it employs serves to insulate it from reality. On what basis would it be able to do so (save a fortuitous Cliff ‘stick bending’ exercise)? Nobody’s going to tell Emperor Callinicos that he is naked if they’ll only get expelled for their trouble, so the result is: garbage in, garbage out. Organisation is a political question, and always has been. If the DO succeeds, then there will be the *possibility* of course correction. As it is, there just isn’t.

And frankly, as a member of a far left organisation, even on the most narrow personal level, it *is* my business if the largest such organisation in this country behaves like an irrational cult. We all get tarred with that brush, like it or not. And it is certainly my business if it falls to pieces (or withers away to nothing), which shouldn’t be ruled out – it would be a very small disaster.


Harley Filben January 4, 2013 at 8:30 pm

PS: I agree that more political meat would have been nice from the comrades, but is probably a tall order given the extremely diverse composition of these factions, running from long-time democratic dissidents to people who were, apparently until two weeks ago, straightforward SWP hacks of the most stereotypical kind.


Pham Binh January 4, 2013 at 9:11 pm

The demand for a radically different orientation to that of the CC is what defenders of the status quo always hide behind because they can’t defend the “apolitical” abuse of power which, in this case, had nothing to do with preserving the SWP’s orientation and everything to do with protecting the CC from accountability to the rank and file.


Pham Binh January 5, 2013 at 8:37 am

Sexual harassment by CC member Martin Smith and how the SWP (mis)handled is evidently part of what gave rise to the demand for inner-party democracy, accountability, and transparency:


Pham Binh January 6, 2013 at 6:47 pm

The closed slate system led to a split of the CC itself at the SWP conference with CC members proposing rival although almost identical slates:

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.


Pham Binh January 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

“Leninism” meets the 21st century (specifically Anon/Wikileaks):

Warning: the first link is galling; not for the faint of heart or those triggered by violent/sexual trauma. Good lord.

The bottom line: in the British SWP you can expect to be expelled for comments on Facebook while rape/sexual harassment charges won’t be investigated with anything remotely approaching impartiality or due process depending on how high up the accused is in the party hierarchy.


Ben D January 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm

This is sick. I can see this process being duplicated in other similarly organized groups if a rapist happen to find themselves in the leadership. You can’t criticize the leadership, that one thing I know from experience.


Richard Estes January 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Wow! No wonder some British leftists find Silvia Federici so threatening:

While reading the transcript, I found the insistence by those who served upon the committee that ‘investigated’ Martin Smith that there must be an alternative to ‘bourgeois’ forms of law enforcement to be howlers.

Indeed. But it is obvious that the SWP alternative fails miserably and can only induce people to embrace the police out of regrettably necessity.


Pham Binh January 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm

While reading the transcript, I found the insistence by those who served upon the committee that ‘investigated’ Martin Smith that there must be an alternative to ‘bourgeois’ forms of law enforcement to be howlers.

Agreed. It is far worse than the infantile “we’ll handle rapes/sexual assaults internally” approach in the early days of Occupy Wall Street. OWS grew out of that pretty quick and did not create a self-perpetuating and aggrandizing hierarchy complete with a pseudo-legal system to protect them from the complaints of the rank and file.


John Kaye January 9, 2013 at 6:44 am

Popularity with the rank and file should not be the only qualification for leadership. How do socialists create a political leadership that is rooted in struggles /and/ also not monolithic? I don’t have all the answers, but just want to offer a couple of observations. I’m not sure that nominating comrades as individuals is the best solution. I do think slates can be constructed democratically. Perhaps the answer is to take slate selection out of the hands of outgoing leadership bodies and have slates nominated by an independently chosen nominating commission. This is the method used by various groups. In theory, it is possible to reconfigure slates from the floor in a convention. The reality is usually different.

Leadership bodies need to be accountable and function more openly. Socialists need organization and unity in action. That said, we also need to greatest possible internal democracy and the ability to say what we think. Leadership is built and trained by testing activists /in action/ and not by promoting yes-men and women. We need to build leadership bodies capable of introspection. self-correction and self-criticism. What we need are critical-minded, self-acting Marxists. Unfortunately, many groups produce hand raisers instead.

To achieve this, we need the ability to discuss fully — without fear of being victimized of isolated. There’s a tendency on the left to see the expression of differing views as a “threat” to the party/organization. Democratic Centralism, IMO, has to flow from full, open discussion — followed by the greatest possible unity in action. It can’t be imposed mechanically.


Harley Filben January 9, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I broadly agree with you, but with one caveat: “Popularity with the rank and file” actually *should* be the only factor. That is what democracy is. Rank and file socialist activists don’t want to be led by morons, or by people who have no idea about the struggle, etc. They don’t vote on the basis of who has the shiniest teeth. If they do, the get the leaders they deserve, and likewise, the hearing from the broader movement they deserve. Trusting the membership at large is the only way we can get out of the vicious cycle of yes-persons (although success is hardly guaranteed by that alone).

I agree that there’s nothing inherently undemocratic about the slate system or whatever. In a group small enough to get all the members in a single room on a regular basis, one may as well vote individuals on and off on an ad hoc basis; in an organisation with strongly rooted rival factions, you may want a list system like in countries with ‘pure’ PR legislatures; an agreed slate may be the best idea for a founding conference of two or more fused groups; innumerable different circumstances may pertain. As long as the membership gets to decide in a meaningful way how to elect its leaders, then there’s no problem with any of them as such.

What *is* clear is that the slate system functions in a profoundly undemocratic way in the SWP; that concealing differences in the leadership is likewise undemocratic (how are we supposed to decide who to vote for if we don’t know what they actually think?); and in fact the arguments from the leadership in favour of both these things are basically anti-democratic. So it’s no surprise that this keeps coming up as and when people get to complaining about the SWP regime.


Morris January 12, 2013 at 11:50 am

I was a member twenty five or thirty years ago. I left the Labour Party to join the SWP during the Miners’ Strike. I liked most of the politics, the people and the social life. I was not convinced of the party’s stance on feminism and attempted to discuss at meetings. Within a week or two comrades were sent to the branch from higher up to put a lid on it. I don’t remember democratic votes for anything like in the Labour Party from where I came. Policies came from above, from the SWP brainiarchy and you could be a member if you agreed with them. Wasn’t something I wanted to continue being associated with for too long.


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