Letters to the Editors from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
I read with interest your review of The Socialist Labor Party, 1876-1991 by Frank Girard and myself (Socialist Standard, October 1991). I have a couple of comments: The SLP (founded in 1876, not 1878) does not really have “a detailed blueprint for future society . . . " It is true that they publish a chart showing how industrial representation would function, but it is very sketchy, designed to illustrate rather than specify. It is unfair to imply that they claim to foresee all the details in their projected future organization of society. As to labor vouchers versus free access, the SLP is less dogmatic than generally described and has apparently modified its position somewhat. In a recent issue of their paper they concede the possibility that labor vouchers would never be necessary.
I feel the phrase "SLP’s undemocratic structure" can be misread. The National Secretary and the NEC don’t actually have constitutional power to expel members. Aside from members-at-large, a member can be expelled only by his local organization ("section"). (The extra-constitutional expulsion of Frank Girard by a National Convention is the single known exception to this rule).This fact explains why so many sections have been expelled over the years: they refused to expel a member who had fallen from grace with the National Secretary and so were themselves expelled.
While over-centralized in the view of many, the party’s constitutional structure is not so much a problem as the compliant membership which has tolerated an authoritarian leadership. In short, it has in this regard reproduced some of the ills of class society. The SLP has not been alone with this problem, of course, as an examination of innumerable left (and right and center) organizations will attest. My knowledge of the SPGB is limited. but if you have not had this problem I would be interested in knowing how you explain this.
There are two factors preventing the emergence of an authoritarian leadership within the SPGB. Firstly, a democratic constitution and. secondly, a democratic consciousness amongst the membership.
Policy is decided by the membership, either by votes cast at branch meetings prior to the Annual Conference or by referendum. The EC cannot expel any member or branch; it can only lay a charge which is heard by the next meeting of branch delegates whose findings have to be submitted to a referendum.
To function properly a democratic constitution has to be backed up by a democratic consciousness amongst the membership. This really exists in the Socialist Party, in large part because we reject the whole concept of leadership— not just authoritarian leadership, but any kind of leadership—and place the emphasis on understanding. This applies both to how we sec the working class establishing socialism and to how we see a socialist party should be organised.
Workers must understand and want socialism, and organise democratically without leaders, before socialism can be established; and only those who want and understand socialism, and reject the whole idea of leadership, are admitted to membership of the Socialist Party.