I am grateful to Mike Marqusee for forwarding the following piece by two former members of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Birmingham. It appears here cut and edited.
ABSENCE OF DEMOCRACY
Sue Blackwell and Rumy Hasan
We were long long-standing members of the Socialist Workers’ Party before we resigned in April 2002 (Sue Blackwell for 19 years; Rumy Hasan for 16) and now, some 16 months later, we wish to explain why we left an organisation that had played such a central role in our lives.
Let us first acknowledge our debt to the SWP: we do not intend to rewrite our histories. Both of us devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources to the organisation. We remain very close to the central tenets that the SWP, in theory at least, espouses. We acknowledge that people join the SWP for the highest of motives, to change the world for the better. The party has undoubtedly achieved much that is laudable. Ours is not the sectarian diatribe of embittered ex-members. It is intended as a serious attempt to critique the organisation's failings.
We would like to imagine that most experienced, self-reflecting SWP members would agree that the SWP has a democratic deficit. But a deficit implies an excess of negatives over positives. The trouble is that in terms of party democracy, there is very little on the positive side: there is not just a democratic deficit but an almost complete absence of democracy. Compounding this is also the absence of democracy's twin, accountability . . .
Democratic debate, discussion, and decision-making necessitate voting - yet party members within the organisation rarely vote. It is a ferociously hierarchical, top-down organisation: the “line” is set by the central committee and enforced on the ground by full-time organisers . . .
For most members, their contact with the party's structures is dominated by the relationship with the organiser. Yet the organiser is not elected by the members but is imposed by the centre . . . Knowing that they are untouchable by grassroots members, organisers tend to be characterised by astonishing insensitivity and arrogance . . . Because they are appointed by, and report to, the central committee, their loyalty is cast iron. Similarly, because the central committee appoints and directs organisers, it backs them to the hilt . . .
Ostensibly, the central committee is elected at the annual conference by delegates sent by the branches (or districts, or whatever format is in existence at the time): usually one delegate for every 10 members. But what invariably happens is that the central committee recommends a “slate” of candidates, and asks whether there are any other slates. We have never known of an alternative slate being put forward. In effect the central committee elects itself . . .
This method strongly acts against the democratic spirit and stamps out critical thinking. Members tend to become submissive, passive, and hidebound - being spoon-fed the politics without thinking or evaluating counterarguments. What happened to Marx's dictum “doubt everything'? It certainly does not get applied to the party line. And when the central committee railroads through a line with undemocratic practices such as packing meetings, most members meekly accept the argument - popular with Stalinists in the past - that “it had to be done”: a mantra that excuses the most nefarious of practices . . .
When it comes to the editorship of the party's publications, democracy is completely out of the question. The argument seems to be that editors should be drawn from the central committee and their authority stems from conference. In reality, the jobs are farmed out between central committee members or those very close to them . . .
The party continuously advocates the principle "never lie to the class". But . . . [it never tells] the truth to members regarding membership figures. It has been years since these have been revealed. The reason, we believe, is that the party membership has declined enormously since the mid-1990s - we estimate its size to be about a third to a half of what it was then . . . A democratic, accountable, organisation would regularly reveal the true membership figures to its members as of right, and if they have fallen, provide an explanation. It would also enable ordinary members to demand accountability and, if need be, allow for the removal of central committee members deemed responsible. But alas, none of this happens . . .
The undemocratic culture of the party moulds the political character of members. Some maintain their independence of thought and integrity. But there is no doubt that on the left, the reputation of party members has fallen. There is the constant refrain that in non-party gatherings, others are mystified at the mechanical behaviour of SWP members, always voting the same way, talking, and behaving like automatons . . . Once the epithet "party hack" sticks, it is very rarely removed . . .
The truly bright sparks in recent years on the international horizon for left politics has been the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. What is crystal clear from these is that millions of people wish to see an alternative to the sham democracy (or no democracy) of the present world. They are certainly not going to tolerate undemocratic and authoritarian practices of left organisations - and this perhaps helps explain why they have not joined those such as the SWP in any significant numbers. The lesson is abundantly clear: without a relentless commitment to genuine democracy, accountability, and civilised debate, the project of winning a better world will remain grounded. The SWP shows no signs of understanding this.