National Sections of the L5I:

SWP and party democracy

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

How should a revolutionary party organise itself? The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once explained:

"Without internal democracy  no revolutionary education. Without discipline  no revolutionary action. The internal structure of the Fourth International is based on the principles of democratic centralism: full freedom in discussion, complete unity in action."

This whole idea of democratic centralism has, to put it mildly, had something of a bad press over the last seventy years. The experience of Stalinism means that the phrase is associated in most people's minds with bureaucratic control from above, blind loyalty to the party leadership, and the purging of anyone who dares to raise disagreements. But for revolutionary socialists, it means the opposite of this.As Trotsky explained, the party must have full internal discussion in order to educate its members and to develop and correct the party's politics. Once a decision is made, however, it must be binding. All of its members, including party leaders, must carry it out.

This prevents the leaders acting like Paddy Ashdown at the Liberal Party conference and declaring that they will not act on the decisions of the majority. It also means that the party is not a permanent discussion club, but has unity and effectiveness in action.

Unfortunately, it is not only the experience of Stalinism that has made many on the left suspicious of democratic centralism. The structure and regime of the biggest left-wing party in Britain  the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)  has reinforced fears that democratic centralism means bureaucratic control.


Question: "On important matters, whose opinion other than your own do you trust most?"

Answer: "Chris Harman, the editor of Socialist Worker and Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review. I can't think of a single other living person I could consult."

This was Tony Cliff, leader and founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), responding to questions from the New Statesman. His answer speaks volumes about the SWP's internal regime.

That regime is supposed to be democratic centralist. Cliff claims it is thoroughly democratic. Yet, by his own admission, he is not accustomed to being held accountable to the party membership. In an organisation claiming over nine thousand members, with an elected Central Committee, he can think of only two people that he would even consult!

Despite a formal adherence to democratic centralism, the SWP has never practised it. The extent of this has been revealed by a recent pamphlet, Democracy and the SWP, by the International Socialist Group (ISG). The group is made up of dissidents who have been expelled or driven out of the SWP.

The party is, according to the pamphlet, a grotesque parody of democratic centralism. The central committee consists of a self-perpetuating coterie of Cliff loyalists. All district committees and organisers are appointed by the central committee, winning their jobs only after proving their abject loyalty to the leadership.


All subordinate committees and functionaries are appointed by these organisers or by the central committee itself, rather than being elected. There are no branch committees elected by branch members.

Conferences of the organisation  nationally and locally  are not so much working bodies as apolitical rallies called on to rubber stamp the leadership's predetermined line. They rarely discuss amendments or alternative resolutions. Any planned or systematic education of experienced party members (cadres) is denounced as abstract theorising. Political debate is caricatured as passive or sectarian.Outside of the conference period there is no internal bulletin to allow members to exchange experience or express their political misgivings. Anybody who expresses dissent is called a "factionalist" or expelled. Unlike Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Party, which allowed organised opposition to exist within the party even on the eve of the revolution and in the midst of the Civil War, SWP members may only form tendencies or factions in a restricted period prior to conferences.After that period has elapsed, they must cease to organise and stop campaigning for their views within the party, as if the emergence of vital issues in the class struggle runs to a strict timetable like a suburban bus.

As the leadership lurches from one "line" to another, hundreds of activists are effectively driven out of the party if they express any disagreement:

"Each new perspective requires a new cadre (below the level of the Central Committee), so the existing cadre are actively marginalised in the party. In this way, the SWP has failed to build a stable and experienced middle cadre capable of acting independently of the leadership. Successive layers of cadres have been driven into passivity, and even out of the revolutionary movement altogether. The result is the loss of hundreds of potential cadres."

This method has become accentuated in the SWP's recent "dash for the growth". Anybody who opposes the line is effectively opposing the growth of the party and is therefore indirectly helping preserve the Tory government! As the pamphlet wryly observes:

"Understandably enough, comrades are reluctant to feel responsible for the continued existence of the Tory government, and so prefer to keep any criticisms of the party to themselves."

Doubtless the leadership will tell members of the SWP that the pamphlet is a pack of lies. Many will accept this. After all, the SWP is growing. It is "on a roll". How could this be the case if it was bureaucratic centralist rather than democratic centralist?

SWP members need to wise up, and wise up fast. Bureaucratic centralist organisations can, and have grown very rapidly in the past, many times. Stalinist parties experienced massive growth after the Second World War. There wasn't a shred of democratic centralism in any of them. Gerry Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) grew in the 1960s and 1970s with a regime and a leader to match that of any Stalinist party.

Growth is not automatic proof that the party's approach is right. All too often short term success has been at the cost of Marxist principles. In the long term, bureaucratic centralism discredits the whole idea of a disciplined revolutionary party in the eyes of thousands of working class activists. The SWP leadership today is preparing the ground for such future discredit.

But there is more to this than an authoritarian regime. And this is where the comrades of the ISG go wrong. For them the fundamental politics of the SWP are fine. They argue that the election of district committees and genuine democratic centralism, if granted, would solve the whole problem. Not true. In the early to mid-1970s the SWP and its predecessor the International Socialists had all of the features that the comrades of the ISG describe today.

Factions were banned. Hundreds were expelled, often as whole groups (Workers Power originated as the Left Faction inside the International Socialists  expelled in 1975). The internal bulletin was suspended, the National Committee abolished, cadres were purged with each new turn and new recruits deprived of a Marxist political education. The central committee became absolute.

What produced such a regime? The answer to this problem has to begin from a different premise to that adopted by the ISG. Organisational questions are not separate from political ones. The regime in the SWP flows from its politics.

Stalin did not crush party democracy for the sake of it. It flowed from his need to crush the politics of Bolshevism which were in complete contradiction to his reactionary creed of socialism in one country.

Cliff is not Stalin. But the key to understanding his regime lies in his politics. Specifically, it is the SWP's fundamental method  economism  that dictates its structure and organisational methods.

Economism does not mean overlooking the need for a revolutionary party, as the SWP claims. It is the idea that the economic struggle of workers, in and of itself, automatically generates revolutionary political consciousness within the working class. This consciousness emerges spontaneously. The party's job, therefore, is simply to generalise and organise this spontaneity.

The practical conclusion of this is to devalue the party's role as the ideological vanguard of the class. It negates the party's role as the fighter for a clear strategy for working class power. After all, if the trade union struggle spontaneously generates revolutionary class consciousness then there is no need to fight for a strategy. It will simply emerge in the course of struggle.

Lenin fought these ideas for the whole of his political life. He argued that the party had to challenge and transcend the existing consciousness of the class through the fight for a revolutionary political programme. Cliff rejects this, writing that Lenin's views "still bedevil the movement". Instead he argues:

"… a revolutionary party is needed because of the uneven levels of culture and consciousness in different groups of workers. If the working class were ideologically homogeneous there would be no need for leadership." (International Socialism Journal 1:58)

This leaves out of account the political consciousness  ideas about society, the state and so on  which are held by workers. If the class were ideologically homogeneous on the basis of wrong ideas  for example, reformism, nationalism or even racism  there would obviously still be a need for a revolutionary party to fight for the leadership of the class, ideologically and in practice.

To conduct such a fight the party needs more than a set of general principles. It needs a programme  a combination of principles, strategy and tactics. The programme is a manual of action that charts the road to power. It stands in opposition to the wrong programmes of misleaders of the class, and also to workers' spontaneous, but often wrong, beliefs about how to change the world.

The SWP leadership's dismissal of the idea of a revolutionary programme  developed by communists in the course of the class struggle and from the lessons of that struggle  is at the root of their disregard for real democratic centralism.

Without a programme  democratically developed and agreed by the party as a whole  twists, turns, policy shifts, and the consequent expulsions of dissidents, become the norm. The "mood of the class" becomes decisive. And that mood is gauged by Cliff and his clique. On the basis of their impressions alone new turns are initiated. The party  without reference to a party programme  is called to order.The absence of a programme means that the membership have nothing against which they can judge these impulses of the leadership. That is why the SWP leaders recently resisted the attempt to provide the party with a "minimum programme". It is why they shelved forever Duncan Hallas' draft SWP programme in the 1970s. The extent to which this is a departure from Lenin's view of democratic centralism is enormous. It is not simply that Lenin was more democratic than Cliff (though he was). It was that Lenin's famous "stick bending" in the direction of one or another tactic was judged by a membership who knew what the fundamental line of march of the party was because they had been won to its programme and fought for it in the working class.


Lenin was no shrinking violet when it came to the need for the party to be disciplined and to fight for common goals. But this was absolutely linked to the party programme:

"The party is a voluntary association, which would inevitably break up, first ideologically and then physically, if it did not cleanse itself of people advocating anti-party views. And to define the border-line between party and anti-party there is the party programme, the party's resolutions on tactics and its rules …" (Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp 47-48)

In the SWP the criteria for judging who is "anti-party" is simply those who are against Cliff's new line. Without a programme against which to judge the line, this will always be the case. Even democratically elected district committees will not change this.

Lenin's fight against economism was a fight for the revolutionary programme. His concept of democratic centralism was based on the need to build an organisation united around such a programme. He recognised that under conditions of extreme police repression centralism would inevitably predominate over democracy within the party. But he insisted on full democratic debate during periods of legal existence. Workers won to the party on the basis of its programme could be trusted to develop that programme and play a full critical role within the organisation. He wrote:

"We are all agreed on the principles of democratic centralism, guarantees for the rights of minorities and for all loyal opposition, on the autonomy of every party organisation, on recognising that all party functionaries must be elected, accountable to the party and subject to recall." (Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp 310-311)

What a striking contrast to the world of cliques and intrigue, purge and furtive discussion that characterises the SWP. And what a gulf between Cliff's trust in two acolytes and Lenin's trust in the critical spirit of party members.

Bureaucratic centralism has done immeasurable damage to the revolutionary movement. The answer is not to "democratise the SWP". It is to recognise that the SWP's politics give rise to its regime. We need revolutionary politics as the only guarantee of a healthy regime and genuine democratic centralism. That is what Workers Power is fighting for.