Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2008

The Fight in the SWP, part one (Neil Davidson)

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:21 pm

A public faction fight has broken out in the British SWP over the crisis that arose in the Respect Party led by George Galloway. (The SWP in Great Britain is to be distinguished from the bizarre sect-cult in the U.S. also called the SWP. Now that I have made this distinction, I will drop the reference to “British” henceforth.) Galloway and his supporters, including some SWP members who subsequently resigned, split with the SWP over what was seen as typical “democratic centralist” heavy-handedness.

This is the second instance of a public faction fight arising out of such problems. This year the Australian DSP split when gains from participation in the Socialist Alliance did not materialize, at least in the view of some long-time members, including John Percy, a founder of the group. Eventually Percy and his co-thinkers were expelled from the DSP and went on to form a new organization. As so often happens in such groups, irreconcilable differences lead to a split.

While the Socialist Alliance was more explicitly socialist than Respect, both parties were bold experiments to reach out to broader political forces. For groups like the Spartacist League, such problems never present themselves since they are so well insulated from “petty bourgeois” formations like Respect or the Socialist Alliance. They refuse to be tainted by the ordinary mass of humanity that has not mastered their cult leader’s profound understanding of the “Russian questions”.

Ironically, the problems of the DSP and the  SWP stem from the fact that they are so wedded to “old school” Leninist principles that making a clean break with their past is impossible even as they acknowledge that something different is needed. The very fact that they chose to work in the Socialist Alliance and Respect is proof of their willingness to think and act outside the box.

All of the relevant SWP documents appear on the Socialist Unity blog, a forum that is closer to my own ideas on how to build the revolutionary movement, except for what seems to be a certain susceptibility to Obama’s rather dubious charms. My guess is that the British comrades are putting too much confidence in the analysis of the CPUSA, an error in judgment to say the least. But as Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot”: “nobody’s perfect.”

Although the first SWP article to appear on the Socialist Unity blog was written for public consumption by John Rees, I am going to take up Neil Davidson’s internal contribution to the debate since much of Rees’s article was in response to Davidson. Parenthetically, I should mention that both these men are smart as a whip. Rees’s “In Defence of October: A Debate on the Russian Revolution” has a nifty critique of Samuel Farber’s anti-Bolshevik scholarship. Sadly, however, Rees and the rest of the SWP fail to apply the same critique to Farber’s Cuba-bashing inspired by the same idealist methodology. Davidson’s scholarship on the origins of capitalism is also first-rate and I urge anybody interested in the question to check out his debate with Robert Brenner here.

Davidson, demonstrating that his tastes in film are as refined as his understanding of economic history, starts out with an analogy to Frank Capra’s “inspirational” movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” that an old girl friend insisted on watching once too often around this time of year. This and the fact that she was screwing an actor behind my back led to our break-up (thankfully) 27 years ago. Davidson writes:

In Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) a trainee guardian angel gives suicidal small Savings and Loans owner George Bailey the opportunity to see what life would have been like in the town of Bedford Falls if he had never existed…

What would British society be like if the SWP had never existed? What would we see if the guardian angel of revolutionary parties could show us a United Kingdom where the ship bearing Ygael Gluckstein to these shores in 1946 had sunk with all on board? Would it be any different?

Of course, anybody who has been in one of the self-declared vanguard organizations has heard something like this before. Perhaps their founders heard it first from Leon Trotsky and it has been passed down from generation to generation. I got a version from Les Evans, an SWP leader who was just one among hundreds given the boot by Jack Barnes, when I was a raw recruit back in the 1960s on the occasion of a national committee plenum in New York City. During a break, Les told me that if the building caught fire and resulted in the death of the brilliant people inside (me excluded), humanity would be set back for decades.

After paying respect to the brilliance of his party’s leaders, Davidson identifies a problem that falls under the rubric of the glass ceiling:

The problem is rather that there seems to be a limit beyond which the Party is unable to grow. In 1977, shortly after International Socialism (IS) had transformed itself into the SWP, Hallas wrote in The Socialist Register that “the SWP is ‘something approaching a small party’. But a small party has no merit unless it can become a much bigger party”. According to Hallas, the party at that time consisted of between 3,000 and 4,000 members.

I have noticed the same phenomenon myself. Back in 2005, I tried rather unsuccessfully to explain to a DSP member on Marxmail why the “vanguard” methodology has built-in limitations:

You have to admit that a cadre formation organized on “Marxist-Leninist” principles can get a lot more done during a limited time-frame than something like Solidarity, for example. We used to call ourselves “The Big Red Machine” in the SWP when we were involved in the antiwar movement. The only problem is that such formations tend to have a limited shelf-life. Sometimes they implode like the American SWP or the British Healyites. In other cases, they just persist less dramatically on the left as a fairly stable tendency that never seems to break the glass ceiling in terms of influence or numbers. I put the British SWP in this category.

Not surprisingly, the DSP’er scoffed at my advice since they viewed themselves essentially as split-proof. When a split did take place two years later, they remained averse to thinking outside the box. Unfortunately for small, self-declared vanguard formations, Leninist orthodoxy is a kind of security blanket like the kind that 3 year olds clutch to. And did you ever try to convince a 3 year old to give up the blanket voluntarily?

After raising some possible explanations for the SWP’s failure to penetrate past the glass ceiling (unfavorable objective conditions, etc.), Davidson puts the blame squarely on the Respect experiment:

Respect was qualitatively different in that it drew on a membership outwith [sic] the existing organisations. We were also right, when the crisis of Respect broke, to take the action we did-including, in my opinion, the expulsions-to save what we could of the situation. The problem lies in what happened in between these two points. Respect’s failure was not simply down to a collision between George Galloway’s rampant egoism and his growing pessimism about working class resistance, but to a lack of clarity about what the organisation was for and how it related to our central revolutionary goals. These problems were highlighted by the misguided attempt to brand Respect as a “united front of a special type”, a category which was first applied to the SA by John Rees in 2001 and is still applied to Respect by Alex Callinicos in the most recent issue of International Socialism.

I have already discussed Callinicos’s odd ideas about Respect as a kind of united front here. While Davidson makes a number of useful points, I am afraid that he is still wedded to a kind of instrumentalist thinking in which a group like the SWP approaches all other formations as a means to an end, namely their own advancement. Until “Leninists” drop this small proprietor approach to politics, they will remain marginal.

In the next section of Davidson’s article, there is an attempt to get to the bottom of things where he addresses “One, two, three, many Leninisms”. He writes:

The SWP, to paraphrase the Labour Manifesto of 1945, is a Leninist Party and proud of it: but what kind of Leninist party? We are told that the SWP follows the Bolshevik party model as transmitted to the parties of the Communist International after 1920. In fact, there was no single model.

While might quibble with one or another of Davidson’s formulations, he does lean in the direction of a more “open” concept of democratic centralism:

In accordance with the Bolshevik principle of democratic centralism, the supreme body of the Party was its Congress, which met at least once a year. The delegates to it were elected on the basis of pre-Congress discussions. In these discussions, different tendencies could confront each other and present their programmes and candidates at the same time. They had very wide freedom to express their differences, including at meetings of local groups in which they had no supporters.

Unlike this rather free-wheeling practice, Davidson basically regards the SWP Central Committee as the exclusive decision-making body of the party whose decisions the membership is expected to carry out dutifully. In other words, the same kind of functioning that exists in virtually all “democratic centralist” formations today. Indeed, I was struck by how he described the rather insular character of the SWP’s leading body in terms that would be very familiar to American SWP members:

The comrades who undertake this task are hardly the basis of a privileged bureaucratic layer and they deserve our respect, but one has to ask whether they are the only members who are capable of performing this role-or indeed whether they do indeed perform it. The CC gives all the appearance of a two-tier body with one (superior) part consisting of the theoreticians and policy-makers, the other (inferior) part consisting of functionaries. This in itself constitutes a problem, since the former will effectively dominate the latter, thus narrowing the range of participants in decision-making still further.

The final section of Davidson’s article is titled “What Next” and has an interesting reference to the tendency of “internal discussions” to go public in the age of the Internet:

We need to extend our period of internal discussion beyond conference in order to allow for greater debate over both strategy and internal organisation, particularly since the CC has not yet recognised that we have problems in either area. (A conference motion containing a proposal along these lines follows this contribution.) One response to this proposal may be concern that our internal discussions may find their way into the websites and publications of the sectarian left, once rightly described by George Lichtheim as “tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water”. China Mieville and Richard Seymour have already dealt with this point in their timely call for a “culture of discussion” in IB2.

This is where I have to part company with Neil Davidson, despite his obvious desire to understand what Lenin was truly about as against the sectarian concepts that prevail today. In fact there were no such things as “internal discussions” in Lenin’s party. Debates were carried out in Iskra, not in internal party bulletins that had to be kept secret from the ideologically unclean or the “tiny ferocious creatures” referred to by Lichtheim. Admittedly, I am a bit sensitive on this matter being 5’6″ and most definitely ferocious.

Perhaps nobody has done more to set the record straight on the public character of Bolshevik debates than Marxmail subscriber Joaquin Bustelo. In an exchange that arose during the course of a discussion about the DSP’s public debate over the Socialist Alliance affair, he pointed out that they were simply reverting to the norm that existed in Lenin’s party. I will conclude with his words that I am in total agreement with:

If the DSP has positions or approaches that really are something that must not be said in front of others within the SA, or the left generally, I would urge comrades a) Never to put such a thing in an “internal” bulletin because those bulletins always get out and b) ask themselves very carefully whether there isn’t really a bigger political problem or issue revolving around the relationship between the DSP and the rest of the SA or the rest of the left that leads the DSP to treat them as fundamentally hostile forces.

I think inevitably there are some things that any grouping will keep private. Either because they could easily be misconstrued; because it violates the privacy rights and needs of militants in specific situations, opening them up to red-baiting and victimizations; because it is an action or initiative that by its nature requires that it become public only at the right time; or simply because it isn’t anyone else’s business.

Thus for example, Lenin’s big complaint against Zinoviev and Kamenev in October of 1917 is that they had “outed” a Central Committee decision that was private, unpublished, namely, the decision to set out on an insurrectionary path. Moreover by the very nature of the decision it wasn’t something that could be discussed publicly. So the Bolsheviks certainly understood the need to keep some things private, like a plan for a concerted action against the class enemy, which makes even more striking that they chose to have all their general political discussions, including their organizational fisticuffs inside the RSDLP and then later the RCP(B), in public.

The default mode of Bolshevik discussion was public, even though Lenin understood that some things should be private, at least for a time. But it is striking that in motivating his proposal to expel “Mr. Zinoviev” and “Mr. Kamenev,” Lenin did not appeal to a special discipline or need for privacy in a revolutionary party, on the contrary, he rested his entire case on an analogy with a union calling a surprise strike against the bosses and what would be done to a member of the union executive board that then went public criticizing this decision before the action. It wasn’t a specific, “Leninist Party” discipline that Lenin insisted was applicable, but rather the generic discipline of ANY working class or progressive organization preparing an initiative against the class enemy that involves the element of surprise.

It is also striking that so strong was the Bolshevik tradition of discussing party policy before God and everybody that Lenin could not get an echo for his proposal to expel the two “ex comrades” inside the Bolshevik leadership, and was forced to drop it and resume comradely collaboration with Zinoviev and Kamenev.

But the kinds of discussions that tend to happen in the “internal” bulletins of left groups are neither of those specific kinds, or things that properly viewed are simply the business of the group an nobody else, like an internal financial report, restructuring branches or the apparatus, etc. They are on general political, theoretical, programmatic questions, on an evaluation of the overall political situation, on relations with others on the left, things which in no sense are exclusively “internal” to the group.

Now, the suggestion is made that openness and transparency in such discussions is the enemy of democracy, that for there to be a free and open discussion on something like the character of the period this must be kept hidden, so comrades don’t feel “inhibited.” I can’t for the life of me understand this. If you’re willing to take the risk of appearing foolish or mistaken in front of all your closest comrades and collaborators, why should you feel inhibited because the ISO, or the Morenistas, or the CPGB will see it too?

It does, I admit, make more difficult this idea that all members of the group have to present the same position on, say, what happened in Spain in the 1930’s as if they agreed with it, even when they don’t. But I think that is a tremendously bad tradition. One effect of it is that you can never fully 100% take the individual probity of someone in such a group for granted. You have to assume you are always dealing with a representative of the collective, never an individual.

My group, Solidarity, has a different norm that is much better, I think. We ask members of the group to tell people what the group’s position is when that comes up. So if a Soli comrade had been asked in the October of 2004 what we were saying about the elections, I would have expected every last one to say that Solidarity was calling for a vote for Nader and Camejo. But I would not have expected comrades who didn’t agree with this to keep their disagreement some deep dark “internal” secret, especially since we had part of the debate about what to do openly in the pages of ATC, and in the framework of a broader collection of articles on the left and the elections. And, yes, we would have expected members who didn’t agree with the majority decision to abstain from campaigning for a different position, but not at all to take the lead as individuals in promoting the Nader campaign.

Another angle on the “internal democracy” argument is that by taking it public, OTHER groups will “intervene” in the discussion and that is undemocratic. First, if I am right that the Percy quotes were pulled from a members-only bulletin, the reality is that this happens anyways, as this case shows. Second, if it happens, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing from the point of view of a group that’s subject to such “interventions.” It tends to project you as an important group, one whose discussions and decisions merit the attention of the entire left — even halfway around the world! And, of course, we should remember what Ben Franklin said, which is that our critics are our friends, for they point out the weaknesses in our positions. We may well learn something from the “outside” interventions, even if only how to formulate arguments in a better way. And finally, it will help groups understand each other better, why they have the positions they do, what the internal political situation is in a group that a leadership has to deal with that constrains or shapes its actions or positions. But it will also show both that the discussions you have in your own group aren’t all that different from everyone else’s, and that there are additional arguments, positions or nuances on a subject that no one in your group may be raising.

In the end, what I hope is that it will lead towards discussions becoming more of a single common conversation among revolutionary socialists of a variety of different groups and no group, laying the basis for further progress in unifying those forces.


  1. Comrade Proyect,

    I read this with great interest, as I always do, but especially on this subject of organizational principles. One of the reasons I like reading your criticism is that you are a clear advocate of strong democracy in a party, coming from the standpoint of claiming the true Bolshevik tradition. I think it is very true that many people don’t realize how strong democracy was in the Bolsheviks, how lively the debate was. I am very much still a student of that period but from what I know already it has been quite clear that the Bolsheviks’ democracy in their party was far more thorough then is often portrayed (by the mainstream and leftists alike).

    I wonder how deep Proyect intends the implications to be. He has stated before – I believe – that he could never be in a party that operated as the SWP (of America) did; adhering to the so-called strict ‘Leninist’ model. I wonder: was the SWP really so degraded its whole time that it had nothing left of that democratic debate and decision making from its claimed Bolshevik tradition? And does that mean that Comrade Proyect dismisses groups (and members of such groups) that adhere to this model even if he agrees with core elements of their analysis? It seems to me that any American party that truly adhered to such principles as Bolshevik democracy could be something that could regroup with Proyect’s Solidarity at some point and through party democracy come to an agreement about how open debate could/should be. Of course that wouldn’t include maybe those parties and tendencies that tend towards sectarianism in the extreme. But I don’t see hardcore disagreements with the example Proyect provided and what I hear from many other revolutionary groups.

    But I can hear someone saying “regroupment can only happen as a result of concrete events,” as I’ve heard from so many people from many parties here in America. That may be true, but it does seem like with a proper democratic framework and the will necessary that many of these issues could be worked out within the same party.

    “Sometimes they implode like the American SWP or the British Healyites,” Proyect wrote.

    But did the American SWP really implode? That seems to me as somewhat of a mischaracterization/oversimplification, or maybe I just don’t understand exactly what it means.

    “I am afraid that he is still wedded to a kind of instrumentalist thinking in which a group like the SWP approaches all other formations as a means to an end, namely their own advancement. Until “Leninists” drop this small proprietor approach to politics, they will remain marginal.” – Proyect wrote

    The event always cited for this approach is the Communist League’s move into the Socialist Party that ended with them leaving and taking with them the youth branch of the SP. It does tend to breed an atmosphere that favors cannibalism of parties instead of fraternal regroupment.

    “It does, I admit, make more difficult this idea that all members of the group have to present the same position on, say, what happened in Spain in the 1930’s as if they agreed with it, even when they don’t. But I think that is a tremendously bad tradition. One effect of it is that you can never fully 100% take the individual probity of someone in such a group for granted. You have to assume you are always dealing with a representative of the collective, never an individual.” – Bustelo (as cited by Proyect as in total agreement)

    This is a very interesting observation. I don’t like it when I meet someone and they can’t tell me what positions on issues where they might be in the minority or might sympathize with the minority’s position. In this era it seems to me that potential members need to be able to get the details on the democratic nature of a party they might join, and being able to detail majority and minority positions and rights inside a party is necessary to doing that IMO. I look forward to part II of this.

    Comment by Sky — December 21, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  2. Louis writes,
    “All of the relevant SWP documents appear on the Socialist Unity blog, a forum that is closer to my own ideas on how to build the revolutionary movement…”

    First, the SU selectively prints SWP documents. There are a number of documents relating to this discussion which have not been printed on the SU website even though they are referred to in the documents that are published. This is typical of the SU website which is notorious for its anti-SWP sectarianism.

    Second, can you clarify what you mean by the SU blog being “closer” to your own ideas about building a revolutionary movement? Are there articles on the website that show this? The SU blog is an incoherent mish-mash of ideas, ranging from a number of individual socialists with little to no political forces behind them (nothing comparable to the SWP). The only point of unity is the obsession with the SWP.

    Comment by djn — December 22, 2008 @ 5:06 am

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