Saturday, February 28, 2015

Where Leadership Leads (2015)

From the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Well-known for its stunts, street stalls and student activism, the SWP suffered a setback a couple of years ago which led to an exodus of members. One of them was Ian Birchall, the biographer of the group's founder Tony Cliff and himself a one-time member of the party's leadership. He had been a member of the SWP and its predecessor, the International Socialism group, for over 50 years. Last December he offered some views on his blog as to what went wrong (

When it was formed in the 1950s as a Trotskyist group which recognised that the so-called USSR was state capitalist (as we'd known all along) it was organised on the same lines as many other left-wing groups in this country. Its members were in the Labour Party and portrayed themselves as left-wing Labourites. Then in the 1960s things began to change, they moved out of the Labour Party and in 1968 Cliff decided that it was time to re-organise the group on stricter Leninist lines.

What prompted this was the general strike in France earlier that year. Typically, as a good Trotskyist, Cliff attributed its failure to result in a socialist revolution to the absence of a revolutionary party to lead the striking workers (not that socialist revolution was the real aim of the strike though it was in fact a success from a trade unionist point of view). He concluded that what 'revolutionaries' should do in the light of this was to openly organise themselves along the same lines as Lenin's Bolshevik party which, according to him and Trotskyist legend, had led to a successful socialist revolution (even if in his view it later degenerated into state capitalism).

Lenin had set out his view on how a revolutionary party should be organised in his notorious 1903 pamphlet What is to be Done? In it he proposed a party of full-time professional revolutionaries which should seek to lead the workers and peasants by formulating populist slogans reflecting the level of understanding that 'the masses' were considered capable of reaching.

This might have made some sense as a strategy for overthrowing a backward, autocratic regime like Tsarism. As it happened, the Tsarist regime collapsed of its own accord under the pressures of the First World War but Lenin's organisational form did help the Bolsheviks seize political control once Tsarism had collapsed. This success led Lenin to proclaim that this was the way revolutionaries should organise too in developed capitalist countries, even those where political democracy existed.

So, in 1968 the members of IS changed the name of their paper from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker and, more importantly, abandoned its previous organisational structure under which policy was decided by a conference of branch delegates voting on motions proposed by branches and where the members of the executive committee were elected as individuals. This was all swept aside and the 'slate' system that the Bolshevik party had used was adopted and which had also been inherited by the CPSU in Russia (yes, Leninism did lead to Stalinism too).

Under this system the 'leadership' (politburo, central committee or whatever it is called) is elected en bloc at the party's conference. Delegates don't vote for individual candidates, but for a list, or slate, containing as many names as there are vacancies. In theory there can be more than one list but in practice there never is or has been. In the SWP (as in the USSR), there was just one – proposed by the outgoing leadership. Rather than trying to put forward a rival list, the leadership's opponents preferred to leave and form another group organised on the same lines (one explanation for the proliferation of Trotskyist groups).

It can easily be seen that this is a recipe for the emergence of a self-perpetuating leadership. Which is precisely what happened, as Birchall noted:
'recent events have shown the limitations of the slate system. It has become a means whereby the CC can indefinitely propose itself for re-election, co-opting approved individuals as it goes.'
There was another consequence in the SWP too:
'Moreover, a career path has now clearly emerged – comrades, generally former students, become full-timers, and if they are successful, they rise in the apparatus and become CC members. Thus we get a CC almost entirely composed of people who have spent most of their political life as full-timers and have very limited experience of work or trade unionism.'
The slate system was also applied to elect the branch delegates to conference:
'Back in the eighties, when strong branch committees existed, the branch committee would nominate a slate of conference delegates. While it was obviously possible for members to nominate an alternative slate, this was frowned on, and in practice was relatively rare. I recall a chairperson telling us the agenda for a branch meeting and saying “and then the conference delegates will be announced”. In practice he was right – this was what usually happened.'
So the SWP ended up a top-down organisation run by a self-perpetuating clique.

Perhaps surprisingly, Birchall does not draw the conclusion that this is where the slate system, a central tenet of the Leninist vanguard party concept, was bound to lead. He still thinks in terms of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries organised on Leninist lines. His beef is not with the theory but with the way it was applied in the SWP – bureaucratically rather than democratically. But for him 'democracy' is not a decision-making procedure but merely a means of providing information to the leadership so that it can formulate the best policy to pursue and the best slogans to put before workers for them to follow:
'... a revolutionary leadership needs to know what is going on in the working class. It cannot do this by reading the Financial Times, it has to listen to comrades who have roots in different sections of the class and who can report on what is happening on the ground. As Cliff argued: “… they have to learn from their fellow workers as much as – or more than – they have to teach. To repeat, the job is to lead, and to lead you have to thoroughly understand those you are leading.”'
This is not democracy in any meaningful sense. It's still saying that the wage and salary working class is incapable of freeing itself on its own but needs to be led by a self-appointed vanguard. It is still rejecting the view that socialism, as a fully democratic society, can only be established democratically, both in the sense of being what a majority want and in the sense of employing democratic methods.

To establish socialism the wage and salary working class does need to organise itself to win political control, i.e. as a political party, but in a democratic party, not to follow a vanguard party or any other would-be leaders.

There is, however, one thing that Birchall seems to have learnt after more than 50 years as a Trotskyist/Leninist:

'The important thing at present is the battle of ideas; as William Morris put it, “it should be our special aim to make Socialists”.'

This is a quote from the Statement of Principles of the Hammersmith Socialist Society, drawn up in 1890. It's what we've been saying for over 100 years.
Adam Buick

Voice From The Back: Inequality (2015)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Scottish National Party claims that Scotland is a more equitable society than the rest of Britain but it too has a completely unequal society. 'Holyrood's health and sport committee has completed an inquiry into health inequalities which mean that a boy born today in some affluent areas can expect to live 28 years longer than if he had been born eight miles away' (Times, 5 January). Not only do the rich live more rewarding lives they even live longer.
A Depressing Society
Capitalism with its threat of unemployment, rent arrears or mortgage payments is a depressing society. Quite how depressing is shown by the latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Society about the use of antidepressants. 'Almost one in ten people in Britain is taking antidepressants with GP prescriptions for them almost doubling in ten years. Doctors last year issued 55 million prescriptions for pills such as Prozac,up from 50 million the year before and nearly twice the 2004 amount' (Times, 6 January). Last year £280 million was spent on the drugs.
An Eleven Hour Wait
The volume of misery for NHS patients continues, but the suffering in some cases is difficult to comprehend: 'a frail 81-year-old woman lay on the floor for 11 hours overnight before an ambulance arrived. Her son David Cunningham said his sister called 999 at 9.07pm on Monday, then rang back several times for updates. He said the family were told it was going to be two hours, then four hours, then six hours. Mr Cunningham, 56, said he heard that ambulances carrying patients were "stacked up" at the hospital' (Daily Express, 5 January). A spokesman for South Central ambulance service apologised and blamed ‘the sheer volume of calls’.
2000 Avoidable Deaths
Air pollution in Scotland's towns and cities has created a public health crisis, according to environmental campaigners. The claim by Friends of the Earth Scotland came after an analysis of official data for two toxic pollutants. The group said the figures showed pollution levels were continuing to break Scottish and European limits. 'Air pollution in Scotland's towns and cities is creating a public health crisis, according to environmental campaigners. High levels of NO2 [nitrogen oxide] are linked to asthma and other respiratory problems . . . Last April, Health Protection Scotland said air pollution may have been responsible for 2,000 deaths in Scotland in a single year' (BBC News, 11 January). Inside capitalism business is much more important than curbing pollution.
Cancelled Operations
The sharp rise in the number of procedures hospitals are at present postponing has prompted the leader of Britain's surgeons to warn that patients affected will suffer ‘considerable distress’. 'Unprecedented demand has led to a third more elective (planned) operations being cancelled in England this winter than last year, latest figures show. A total of 12,345 were called off at short notice between 3 November and 4 January, a rise of 32% on the 9,320 seen in the same period in the winter of 2013-14' (Observer, 11 January). Cancellations included some 3,771 procedures such as hernia repairs and hip or knee replacements in the three weeks before and during the festive season.
Cuts In Cancer Treatment
Health chiefs have announced that twenty-five different cancer treatments will no longer be funded by the NHS in England. 'NHS England announced the step after it emerged the £280m Cancer Drugs Fund - for drugs not routinely available –was to go £100m over budget in 2014/15. Some drugs will be removed and others restricted –a move charities say could leave some without crucial treatments' (BBC News, 12 January). Another example of government cuts coming before essential treatment for the working class.
Class Room Crisis
Council leaders warn that the cost of creating places for the 880,000 extra pupils expected in England by 2023 could push schools to breaking point. 'The Local Government Association fears the demand for school places could soon reach a tipping point with no more space or money to extend schools. The LGA wants the government to fully fund the cost of all the extra places, calculated to run to £12bn' (BBC News, 13 January). Official government figures, published last year, project that by 2023 there will be a total of 8,022,000 pupils in England's schools – up from 7,143,000 in the current academic year. This increase has no budget to deal with the problem.

Moore of the Same (2004)

Book Review from the January 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard
Michael Moore is a phenomenon. His book Stupid White Men has become a bestseller, having sold well over half a million copies in the UK, and he is a massively popular film-maker (Bowling for Columbine), as well as a stage and TV comedian-cum-political critic and activist (see the January 2003 Socialist Standard for some Socialist comments on him). His new book Dude, Where's My Country? (published by Allen Lane) is a further example of his talent for invective.
Dude really lays into President George 'Dubya' Bush, attacking him as mendacious, cowardly and corrupt, plus other less pleasant attributes. While much of what is said in the first chapter is in the form of questions rather than outright accusations, it does at the very least present some interesting points. For instance, the Bush family have had, and still have, close business links with that wealthy Saudi family the bin Ladens (who have by no means broken off relations with their 'black sheep' member Osama). The Bushes also have business connections to the Saudi royal family, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship featuring arbitrary arrest, with no political parties or trade unions. Of course the US benefits from massive amounts of Saudi oil and Saudi investments, which is why Dubya and Blair have been in no hurry to “defend freedom” by invading it.
Were the 11 September attacks really organised by some dissident faction of the Saudi royal family? Of greater general significance perhaps is Moore's claim that Dubya's campaign for the presidency was partly financed by companies like Enron and Unocal. They wanted a president who would let them get their hands on Afghanistan's oil and gas. They were considerably helped in this by Dubya's appointment of a Unocal consultant as US ambassador to Afghanistan and installation of a former Unocal employee as the new Afghan leader. And – guess what – an agreement to build a new pipeline to export Afghan gas was signed just three and a half months after 11 September, which provided an excuse for getting rid of the uncooperative Taliban. And did Dubya really run scared on the morning of 11 September? It hardly matters, though I suppose it would be nice to think he is a coward as well as a bloodthirsty bully.
Then we are introduced to even more of Dubya's lies, most especially his confident pronouncement that Iraq had nuclear weapons. This is followed by similar exposure of claims about Saddam Hussein having biological and chemical weapons: he certainly did have them in the 1980s, when he used them against the Kurds, having obtained them from US companies in the first place. Moore is almost apoplectic on this count:
“Weapons of mass destruction? Oh yeah, he had them at one time. All we had to do was check the receipts and count the profits as they rolled into the bank account of the campaign backers of Reagan and Bush.”
As for the view that Saddam was the world's most evil man, there have been plenty of rivals for this crown, many of them aided by the USA. Even apart from Saudi Arabia (see above), the cases of the murderous Mobutu of Zaire and the genocidal Suharto of Indonesia spring to mind.
What, next, of the supposed campaign to oppose terrorism? Moore sees the best way to stop terrorism as being . . . to stop acting as terrorists. But this campaign has had primarily domestic uses:
“Perhaps the biggest success in the War on Terror has been its ability to distract the nation from the Corporate War on Us. In the two years since the attacks of 9/11, American businesses have been on a punch-drunk rampage that has left millions of average Americans with their savings gone, their pensions looted, their hopes for a comfortable future for their families diminished or extinguished”
So we are told about executives who pocket millions while their companies' share prices fall through the floor, of other companies that take out life insurance policies on their employees but name the company as the beneficiary, of cutbacks on pensions and other benefits. Also of the thirteen thousand families who make up the top 0.01% of the American population but control as much wealth as the poorest twenty million.
All this is not only instructive but presented in a heartfelt and amusing way. Moore's breathless style can grate after a while, but Dude is never dull or heavy-going. And yet, and yet, and yet: it is ultimately plain unsatisfactory, with little real understanding of what drives present-day society or what needs to be done to replace it. Part of the problem is that Dubya, with his mangling of the English language, his evident ignorance of the world, and his inability to present his thoughts coherently, is such a soft target. The last chapter proclaims that “There is probably no greater imperative facing the nation than the defeat of George W. Bush in the 2004 election”, notes how useless the Democrats are, and then settles on a suitable anti-Bush candidate – none other than Oprah Winfrey! And if she refuses (and she has said she won't stand), his next choice is General Wesley Clark, formerly Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. It's as if one were to read a devastating description of the predations of some criminal gang, and then be told that the crucial task was to give them a new name.
Sadly, Moore fails to see that Dubya's lies and corruption are not causes of the problem but symptoms, brought about by the same factors which result in wars and poverty and inequality. No matter who is in nominal charge of capitalism, whether in the US or anywhere else, it will remain the same rapacious animal, attacking ordinary people both at home and abroad. This will only finish when workers get rid, not just of Dubya, but of the whole gang of politicians, of capitalist parasites, and indeed of the capitalist system itself. We must hope that some of the many who will read this book will draw more radical conclusions than its author.
Paul Bennett