Slates, Factions, and the Socialist Workers Party


Pham Binh offers some thoughts on the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is in the midst of another internal crisis.

Four members were expelled on questionable grounds and now there are two factions, the Democratic Opposition  and the Democratic Centralism faction (hopefully Richard Seymour is among them), both of whom are defending the four. The recent formation of the Democratic Centralism faction by a minority on the Central Committee is particularly significant as it could have sufficient support at the conference to overturn the expulsions.

SWP logo

Socialist Workers Party at a turning point

The underlying issue in the dispute is the SWP’s internal regime, specifically how it elects its Central Committee (CC). Like almost all Trotskyist groups, the SWP uses what is best described as a closed slate system. A slate system means a ticket of names is voted on as a single bloc. In and of itself, there is nothing untoward or undemocratic about a slate system. However, in the living context of the SWP, it is untoward and undemocratic.

From a rank-and-file members’ perspective, any attempt to hold a single CC member accountable by removing them would require coming up with an entirely new leadership, usually upwards of a dozen people, since existing CC members will decline nomination as part of a rival slate (hence why the system is “closed”). Leading cadre outside the CC are usually appointed to their positions by the CC, so the likelihood of them accepting a position on an opposition slate is close to zero. Inevitably, the CC puts forward itself (sometimes with a few personnel changes) as a slate for re-election at the SWP’s annual convention. All of these factors acting in concert ensure that the CC’s slate is the only one convention delegates vote on in an open show of hands, aye or nay. Only once in the SWP’s history has there been a competitive election for the CC between slates at a party convention.

A one-slate party is no more democratic than a one-party state, and the closed slate system is not how Lenin and the Bolsheviks elected their CC. Tony Cliff noted in his Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 the following vote totals for the CC of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party elected by the sixth party congress held in summer of 1917:

“The names of the four members of the central committee receiving the most votes are read aloud: Lenin – 133 votes out of 134. Zinoviev 132, Kamenev 131, and Trotsky 131. (Loud applause)”

Here, we see that the party was led not by a politically homogeneous slate but by its most popular and outstanding figures whose differences with one other throughout 1917 in the middle of the revolution are well known (although not well understood) and need not be repeated here. The point here is twofold:

  1. The method of electing a CC used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks is nothing like that used by the SWP (and the whole of the International Socialist Tendency, including the American International Socialist Organization).
  2. This discrepancy has significant political ramifications for party life and practice. The closed slate system prioritizes political homogeneity and creates a leadership team that agrees on just about everything while a secret ballot for individuals prioritizes popularity with the rank and file and creates a leadership team marked by vibrant debates precisely because they do not agree on all issues all the time.

Lenin explicitly rejected the notion that the party’s leadership should be of one viewpoint or tendency at the 1918 party congress held to debate party policy on the controversial Brest-Litovsk treaty:

“Lomov very cleverly referred to my speech in which I demanded that the Central Committee should be capable of pursuing a uniform line. This does not mean that all those in the Central Committee should be of one and the same opinion. To hold that view would be to go towards a split.”

(He was arguing against the Left Communists’ decision to boycott the CC and won; the congress passed a resolution affirming the right of individual CC members to dissent publicly with the CC and Left Communists Bukharin and Uritsky were elected to a 15-member CC along with eight alternates by a secret ballot.)

Without the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff to manage and resolve divisive disputes at the top, the party fractured and entered into a terminal decline within a decade of his passing. The closed slate system’s structural inability to properly regulate political differences among members of the CC played a major role in shaping the way the SWP shipwrecked itself in 2007-2010 when its political mistakes within RESPECT accumulated, leading to a series of painful debacles and waves of resignations/expulsions of long-time cadre. The CC made one of its members, John Rees, the scapegoat for all its errors and missteps as a collective leadership body and he was excluded from the CC slate at the party’s annual conference in 2009. Eventually, he and his co-thinkers split from the SWP and created Counterfire. CC member Chris Bambery followed suit in 2011 and created Scotland’s International Socialist Group.

Today, the United Kingdom has three competing groups based on Tony Cliff’s politics. An organization that claimed 10,000 members in the early 1990s has been significantly reduced in numbers and influence as a result of these splits.

For revolutionaries, the SWP’s difficulties are no cause for joy, although its competitors undoubtedly salivate at the prospect of grabbing the party’s market share by recruiting the politically inexperienced to their particular shibboleths.

This crisis is, however, an opportunity for all those involved to go back to the drawing board, re-think their political assumptions, study Lenin and the Bolsheviks more closely and critically, reject what does not work, and forge a new left not hidebound by ridiculous rules, tradition for tradition’s sake, and the recruit-recruiters model that has failed to stop the austerity steamroller.



  1. January 3, 2013 at 7:21 pm · Reply

    Alternatively rather than looking for a solution from another time, political situation, historical balance of forces et al it might be an idea to question whether Democratic Centralism in any form is the most appropriate organisational form for a revolutionary organisation in Western Europe in the 21st century.
    What is democratic centralism good for?
    Off the top of my head here are some ideas as seen in the UK in recent history
    1) Enables an organisation that has problems with effective communications, like operating under police repression, to convey clear instructions to its isolated members.
    2) Allows a small organisation operating in the Labour Party to punch above its weight and gain control of local and regional level machinery, such as Militant targeting of Constituency Labour Party’s that had fallen to pieces in the North West and Midlands.
    3) Enables small organisations to have a voice in moribund union structures, and building an ‘industrial’ presence in bureaucratic structures.
    4) Enables small organisations to build Front organisations as party building platforms- note only works with one organisation in each Front
    5) Allows central figures to behave badly and get away with it- WRP and allegedly recently in the SWP.
    6) Building a brand, a political identity that seeks to be the monopolistic power on the predefined area of the Left the brand choses to occupy.

    I’m sure there are others, many others but that will do for now.

    What is Democratic centralism bad for
    1) Dynamic internal debate, which by its very nature is both vertical and horizontal
    2) Creative leadership, both locally, nationally as well as in by sector, in unions, and in campaigns
    3) Building strong local policies that respond to local as well as national issues
    4)Building circles of influence around the organisation, which allows ideas and strategy generated with the organisation moe out into the wider movement
    5) Building lasting alliances with other progressive forces, by definition if your line is right then others are wrong
    6) Building anything, whether it be a campaign, a new union area of activity

    Let’s be honest, every attempt to build a Party based on democratic centralism in the UK has failed or is in the process of failing- a huge resource of motivated, intelligent, hard working cadre have been burnt out and alienated over the last 60 years by this form of organisation, and the way it has been used by the various leaderships of a wide range of organisations.

    Yes we do need to “to go back to the drawing board, re-think (their) OUR political assumptions” and I am far from convinced by the Paradise Lost route that the answer lies in some corner of a Russian archive. Better to look at what has worked over the last 10 years, what resources we can draw on in the here and now, what are the key issues facing working and unemployed people and how we can creatively enable them to tackle them and in doing so empower themselves.

    • January 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm · Reply

      You seem to be operating under the mistaken assumption that I am a proponent of “democratic centralism.” I certainly didn’t use the term or refer to it here, so I’m not sure where you got this idea from.

      The point of this piece is that if we’re going to base our practice on something that happened elsewhere in some other era, we’d better study that example closely. The fact of the matter is “Leninism” — aside from its outer trappings like a central committee and a newspaper — bears little practical resemblance to the historical example it is supposedly based on.

      I agree with your point about using what works. It’s why “I’m for whatever gets results” (a Malcolm X quote) is on the masthead of, the site I help run.

  2. January 3, 2013 at 7:44 pm · Reply

    How does Counterfire organise itself?
    Does anyone know?

    • January 3, 2013 at 8:43 pm · Reply

      Formal Counterfire Consitution here

      Pretty simple really, a National Conference every 18 months with every member allowed speaking and voting rights, elects a steering Committe which runs everything else. National Meetings every four months with again every member having speaking and voting rights.

      Sounds about standard for a London based small membership network. How it works in practice and how many people are actively involved I have no idea better ask an honest member.

  3. January 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm · Reply

    Pham, sorry wasn’t having a go at the thrust of your article, just that the idea that looking for answers in Russia over 90 years ago is the answer. The practices of the majority of UK hard left have tried in the past 60 years or so to use some interpretation of Lenin to justify their internal regime and the results haven’t been to edifying.

    I do think that there are more relevant sources of inspiration closer at hand both in terms of time and geography- the new left formations here in France, in Germany, Spain and Catalonia, Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands and Denmark all have elements that need closer inspection, as do some of the anti-globalisation campaigning methods, such as Occupy, UK Uncut, ATTAC, Confed Paysanne, Via Campesina all have had successes that a serious left wing movement could learn from and possibly incorporate into a new dynamic strategy.

    Maybe I just find digging around in Russia archives a form of Left wing train spotting- my bad

    • January 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm · Reply

      No need to apologize. I come from the “Leninist” tradition myself and broke from it only by grappling with the contradictions between latter day practice and how things were (more or less) historically. It’s really untenable politically when you delve into the ins and outs of the issues and events.

  4. Stuart King
    January 10, 2013 at 12:34 am · Reply

    I think Pham Binh is being far too generous when he says “Without the SWP’s founder Tony Cliff to manage and resolve divisive disputes at the top, the party fractured and entered into a terminal decline within a decade of his passing.”

    Tony Cliff never resolved divisive disputes, indeed he was often the instigator of them when he decided on the need for a sudden turn or “bending of the stick”. Anyone who resisted the new turn was quickly purged, either from the leadership or the organisation.

    Although its written by a party loyalist, Ian Birchall’s recent biography of Cliff brings this out. By the mid to late 1970s the IS/SWP was a bureaucratic centralist organisation – closed CC slate system, a large full timer apparatus appointed from the top and dependent for their jobs on the CC, branches unable to send resolutions to conference or communicate horizontally, regular expulsions of individuals or whole branches for opposing the leadership.

    The legacy Cliff left was the type of organisation we see today – one that immediately resorts to expelling faction members for discussing forming a faction outside the three month period generously allowed by the CC. Of course the CC itself is a permanent faction, policing the members and branches, appointing the full timers and using them for heresy hunting when necessary, throughout the year, year in year out.

    So when Pete points out all the “weaknesses” of democratic centralism he is more likely referring to the weaknesses of bureaucratic centralism, a method that Simon has pointed out in his articles elsewhere on this site, bears little relationship to Bolshevik organisation in its best period.

    Of course we don’t just want to rely on the Bolsheviks methods given this is the 21st century. We should look at our experiences in the Socialist Alliance, the SSP, the NPA, even the Brazilian Workers Party, not to mention Occupy and see if we can develop a type of organisation that can act together and stay together.

    • January 10, 2013 at 3:22 pm · Reply

      I plead guilty to your charge of being “too generous.” My remarks were not intended to be a summation of Cliff’s method but a reminder that without him at the head of the SWP’s Central Committee, disputes at the top spun out of control since there was no agreed-upon “successor” to his throne. One of the telling things in this regard was Bambery’s resignation letter was his appeal to Cliff’s authority. I believe his book, Building the Party, sheds much more light on Cliff’s thinking and methods for “party building” than Lenin’s. I would even go so far to say that Cliff projected his “style” onto Lenin, and so when people rejected the British SWP’s practices, they often ended up mistakenly rejecting Lenin and the example of the Bolsheviks.

      Cliff’s approach was not only bureaucratic (as you point out), it was impressionistic. He lurched from one get-members-quick scheme to the next and concocted silly phrases (“30s in slow motion” in the 90s, “the downturn” in the 80s) to justify each bend of the stick. In the end, a stick that is bent this way and that arbitrarily from above for decades on end will eventually break or become limp and that is what we are unfortunately witnessing today.

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