Chris Harman

The Sort of Leadership We Need

(November 1979)

From SWP Internal Bulletin, No. 5, November 1979 (Pre-Conference Issue 3).
Transcribed by Pete Gillard.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The main part of this article appeared as the second section of a document for the Party Council before last; the first section of that appeared in the IB before last. But I have written a new introduction, and expanded the conclusion.

The coming conference will be faced with all sorts of important tasks – evaluating the balance of class forces at present, deter mining the main lines of intervention in the 12 months ahead, assessing the new reformism that is developing around Benn and our response to it, working out our reaction to the continuing crisis inside the CP, and so on.

It will also have to deal with certain of the internal arguments that have developed in the party over the last period. It will, for instance, have to take binding decisions on the orientation of our women’s work in the year ahead. Hopefully this will involve an affirmation of the need for a structure in which our members and supporters can relate to the particular problems of women workers, but also a decisive rejection of the notion that this can somehow be a politically independent ‘revolutionary’ organisation, operating as a separate, ‘PARALLEL’ PARTY AND IN NO WAY LINKED TO THE SWP’s policies and initiatives.

If the conference fails to a clear stand on this issue, it will be sliding away from a clear Marxist approach towards organisation into a hazy ‘movementism’, in which every oppressed group has its own politics and where there is no attempt to build a single party that ties to unite all struggles to the struggle for workers power.

However, once we have decided on our external perspective and on our continued intention to try to build the party (and not two or three ‘parallel’ parties), that still leaves us with the subordinate task of evaluating how our leadership has responded over the past 18 months and how it should be based in future.

Here, I think the delegates are going to have to say that our leadership has been wanting in certain respects. Although much of the general line of the organisation has been correct, there have been a number of occasions on which the CC (or members of it) have behaved irresponsibly.

This was most clearly the case with the affair of Socialist Worker last year. It is difficult today to find people who do not denounce what has become widely known as the ‘punk paper’. The national secretary certainly does (see his reply to me in the IB before last). Cliff, the editor of the paper, now admits that he did a U-turn on the paper last October after going out of his way to ignore the conference decision on the paper for three months.

Yet, last July and August there were not more than three CC members out of 10 who were prepared to vote on the CC against the then orientation of the paper, with its downplaying of both industrial issues and of the question of the party. (It is not true, as Simon claims, that only Jim and Cliff were enthusiastic for that paper. Paul Holborow and Margaret Renn were just as enthusiastic for it, and three other CC members were quite prepared to let the enthusiasts do what they wished).

The same irresponsibility was shown around the affair of Carnival Two we ended up following a policy which under any other circumstances we would have instinctively rejected.

At the time of the general election we had the strange situation develop in which the CC (in the person of Duncan) presented one policy for adoption to the Party Council, in which the paper then proceeded for three weeks to adopt a quite different emphasis (so that even Simon was embarrassed by these issues), and finally a popular leaflet was produced which put the original perspective of Duncan.

Even over the question of Women’s Voice a certain responsibility rests with the CC (including myself) in the sense that between the conference in June last year and the beginning of this year, we allowed some of our leading women to launch the Women’s Voice organisation on politically ambiguous lines, which some of them certainly thought meant an organisation politically independent of the party. In some cases, at least, this was seen as a parallel development to the orientation in SW which down played its connection with the industrial struggle and the party. However, on this issue the majority of the CC (but not, unfortunately Steve Jefferys) did see the damage that was being done by the January Party Council and begin to argue politically against the ‘parallel party’ line.

What’s Been Wrong

The fact that members of our organisation have, on occasions, lost their political balance over the last 18 months should not surprise us. Although from the Ford strike onwards there was generally quite high level of industrial, trade union struggle, this lacked political focus (at least until the return of the Tories). We have often found it easier to operate on the margins of the class than in the workplaces and factories. Inevitably, this exerted ideological pressures on us.

In some ways, things are now easier for us. But we can in the next couple of years expect new pressures. As hostility to the Tories grows, our members will be under strong pressure to drop our specific disagreements with left reformism, to forget was Labour did in power, and what it will do when it returns to power.

One of the tasks of a party leadership is to counter any such loss of balance amongst the party membership.

What emerges clearly from the last 18 months is that our leadership, as presently constituted does not guarantee us a direction to the party which will inevitably protect us from such pressures. People who bent politically under the over the women’s question this year) can bend again in future.

I do not thing this is simply the fault of the particular bunch of individuals who make up the CC at the moment. Otherwise, the simple thing to do would be to take up the CC’s suggestion for ‘names and alternatives proposed’. In fact all of us recognise that certain CC members will be indispensable to any leadership elected at the next Conference (Cliff, for example). The fact that they have made mistakes does not mean they can be dispensed with. At the same time, it is also clear that adding or subtracting individuals to the existing CC ‘team’ has not improved matters in the past. Something more radical is needed than changing the composition of the CC: there has to be a change in the structures within which our leadership operates and, above all, in the way in which issues are argued out within the party.

Both our present leadership structure, and the attitudes which predominate within it about the sort of political discussion that should take place, are a heritage from a very difficult period for our party.

In the years 1974–6, we, like the rest of the revolutionary left internationally, faced the very difficult process of adjustment to a quite sharp, even if only temporary, downturn in the level of struggle. Many leading comrades, inside and outside industry, became tired, demoralised and, on occasions, the victims of pressures pushing them to the right. A quite powerful opposition faction developed in the organisation on the basis of feeding off some of these ‘rightist’ trends, led by some figures who had formerly played a leading role in the organisation. At the same time, there were some, often quite unpolitical, tensions developed between leading comrades in different parts of the country.

In this situation we decided, in effect, to try to protect the organisation against internal and external centrifugal pressures by establishing a small, centralised leadership of six (and later 9 or 10) comrades. I was a supporter of this move. We (mistakenly) identified it with the creation of a serious, interventionist organisation that could sustain the ‘steering to the left’ which was (correctly) our response to the period.

There were criticisms of the new leadership structure at the time. But they came, in the main, from those who were drifting to the right. Their main argument was that the structure was ‘undemocratic’. We could easily refute that argument by pointing out that the principles of formal democracy were kept fully intact by the responsibility of the CC to an annual conference, and by the existence of a party council (later also an NAC) whose ‘advice’ the CC was not likely to ignore.

However, experience has shown that we were wrong to make the change to the new structure.

The change was based on the false premise that you can avoid the political pressures that develop in a period of difficulty for revolutionaries by restricting the number of comrades involved in the effective decision making of the organisation. Our experiences in a number of districts, where as well as ‘rightists’ we lost comrades we should have been able to keep, should have taught us otherwise as early as 1975–6. But instead of learning the lesson, we tended to react by tightening up still further. We reached the stage where we feared that any discussion outside a very small group of comrades at the Centre would lead to unnecessary rows, to a factional atmosphere in the organisation, to more splits and more losses. Fear of ‘rocking the boat’ when times were difficult led us to down grade the importance of discussion over national perspectives, strategy and tactics. Hence, for instance, when there were quite bitter arguments in 1976 about the possibility of a second long right to work march, we did our utmost to prevent anyone outside the central leadership knowing about it.

We even convinced ourselves that it was our tight structure which had held us together during the downturn, not our correct politics.

I myself forgot what I had written in Party and Class nearly ten years before:

By being part of a (democratic centralist) organisation, workers and intellectuals alike are trained to assess their own concrete situation in accordance with the scientific socialist activity of thousands of others. “Discipline” means acceptance of the need to relate individual experience to the total theory and practice of the party. As such it is not opposed to, but a necessary prerequisite of the ability to make independent evaluations of concrete situations. That is why “discipline” for Lenin does not mean hiding differences which exist within the party, but rather exposing them to the light of day so as to argue them out. Only in this way can the mass of embers make scientific evaluations ...

Without an organisational centralisation aimed at giving clarity and decisiveness to political differences, the independence of rank and file members was bound to be undermined. Ties of personal affection or deference to established leaders became more important than scientific, political EVALUATION.”

At first the consequences of the trend to a narrowing of leadership discussions to a very narrow group of individuals were not clear. But over time the trend meant that the only discussion about the political priorities and the direction of the organisation came to be carried on within a very narrow group of CC members and full-timers. The attitude towards the rest of the organisation was almost “Don’t let the children find out we don’t always get on”.

The small group at the Centre has been under very little discipline to articulate its perspectives including its disagreements about perspectives to a wider section of the cadre. This inevitably has had its consequences in terms of the discipline on the CC even to articulate clear perspectives for itself. Responsible to no wider body for 12 or even 18 months at a time, the CC has become politically sloppy in its method of working. Decisions are rapidly made that are just as rapidly forgotten. No perspectives at all are drawn up for whole areas of work. Individual members of the CC take very important decisions without any reference to the rest of the CC or to the other CC members individually (thus no major decision over the direction of the paper has been made by the CC as a whole since last August: political decisions like those taken over Carnival 2 were made by a couple (or at most 3) of CC members without any consultation with other CC members who were at hand etc.

It is this lack of discipline on the CC that has enabled repeated policy zigzags to occur.

Such faults among the leadership are particularly dangerous in a period like the present. There is the ever present danger of ill-thought out decisions which damage the work of a wide section of comrades. Politically, it is such faults which play straight into the hands of those who would abandon democratic centralism and party building for the apolitical anti-partyism that has so much damaged the European revolutionary left.

The confining of political discussion on national perspectives to the CC and a small group or organisers has another disastrous consequence. It means that the only people with experience and confidence in national political discussion come from this group. It tends to mean that the only ‘viable’ alternatives to the present members of the CC are seen as being existing full time organisers. Hence the tendency for the CC to change only by the addition of people very much like itself.

Organisers play an indispensable role in any revolutionary organisation. They clearly have to be part of the leading cadre. But they should only be part. The danger with the structure we have at the moment is that it tends to make the organisers into the only national cadre we have. Unless we rectify this situation, we as a party are bound to make mistakes, with an embattled leadership feeling that it faces a potentially hostile membership.

It should be added that the argument about the danger of organisers dominating the political decision making of the party is not new. The argument about the political limitations of ‘committee men’ was made very emphatically by Cliff during the discussions on the proposed second long march in 1976. The argument retains its point. We have to avoid falling into the trap of ending up with a situation where the ‘committee men’ automatically dominate leadership bodies.

What is the alternative?

There is no easy remedy to the situation we have allowed ourselves to get into. We have permitted a tight, closed in, siege mentality to develop within the leading cadre of the party which organisational changes alone will not remove.

But as a minimum we need to ensure:

  1. The whole system of a small 9 or 10 person leadership responsible only to Conference is done away with. We have tried it, and its bad features far outnumber its benefits.

    The old notion of vesting the leadership of the organisation between conferences in a 40 person National Committee which selected a smaller executive had a whole number of faults. But it did force a substantial number of non-full-timers, of worker militants, to concern themselves with the national political strategies we were following. It forced the day-to-day leadership to spell out what it was doing on a fairly regular basis. It prevented the wilder excess (for instance over SW over the last 18 months).

    It meant that when political deviations developed the party, the argument had to be confronted before it got out of hand. We did not then get situations as with the Women’s Voice debate, with a whole chunk of comrades involved in a particular area of work drifting away from the central orientation of the party.

    Neither the Party Council nor the NAC has fulfilled the same function. This is not, as some CC members may claim, because our worker members will ‘never be prepared to take the responsibilities involved’. It is because all our comrades are subject to many other pressures of work, and do not see the reason why they should put a lot of effort into merely ‘advisory’ functions. Give them national ‘political responsibility, and I am sure that most of them will take it.

    If we do not create some such wider politically responsible body, the malaise in the leadership we have suffered can be expected to continue and have dangerous effects on the rest of the party.
  2. There has to be an opening up of political discussion. This does not mean, as it occasionally did in 1968–74, that every branch meeting is consumed by futile rows over the latest alleged misdeeds of the leadership. But it does mean an honest and open discussion over perspectives, strategy and tactics, especially in the pre-conference periods and when major initiatives are taken by the party.

Proposals such as I am putting forward are sometimes criticised on the grounds that they deny democratic centralism by creating ‘dual power’ within the organisation. The objection is nonsensical. It would only be true if there were two bodies elected directly from conference. But under a NC-type structure, ultimate power between conferences lies with the NC. A politically responsible NC will certainly recognise the need for a smaller, day to day leadership able to take immediate and binding decisions on urgent issues that leave no time for consultation with the NC. What, no doubt, it will object to is a whole political orientation like the punk paper orientation last year, being decided without a minimum of discussion between the day-to-day leadership and the leading cadre.

It is also objected that such a body would be ‘conservative’. Now, of course, it is true that any body made up of more experienced members in any revolutionary organisation can be slow to see new opportunities. But that is not an argument against such a body existing. It is rather an argument for the duty of those who do see such opportunities to argue vehemently within the party for their position and to win the ‘conservatives’ around. After all, the party cannot effectively carry any policy until the more experienced members have been argued into accepting it.

In any case, against these objections there is one over-riding counter-argument. At present a whole section of the leading cadre in the party are rather cynical about the present leadership. They do not regard them as necessarily the politically best people in the party, but neither do they see how to replace them. Unless the situation is rapidly rectified, by developing new structures that create a wider national leadership, the cynicism can rapidly breed moods like that we have seen among some of our women comrades, in which the very notion of the democratic centralist party is questioned. That has been the road travelled by many a European revolutionary organisation. It is not one any of us would like to see the SWP travel.

Last updated on 1.3.2013