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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.)
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.