Leninist organizations invariably become bureaucracies focused more on their own self-reproduction than the needs of the class struggle.
Marxists have long discussed the question of whether Leninism leads to Stalinism, but there is a far simpler question confronting revolutionary organizations. Does Leninism lead to bureaucracy? We do not have to wait for a revolution to succeed and then fail to answer this question, we merely have to look at the numerous cases of Leninist groups which, regardless of size, repeat the same patterns. Their leaders become entrenched, their positions sterile, their habits static, uncreative and unaccountable to the workers they claim to represent. This is exactly the opposite of what these groups strive to be, or claim to aspire to, and yet this is the typical endgame for Leninists groups. From the British Social Workers Party, which claimed thousands of members, to tiny sects of dozens, the end result has differed more in the size of their audience than in their internal democracy or creativity.
Bureaucracy has long been studied by sociologists and has often been studied by Marxists when looking at the state, but has rarely been studied by Leninists when looking at their own organizations. This is odd because, as one mainstream sociologist put it:
With increasing bureaucratization, it becomes plain to all who would see that man is to a very important degree controlled by his social relations to the instruments of production. This can no longer seem only a tenet of Marxism, but a stubborn fact to be acknowledged by all, quite apart from their ideological persuasion. Bureaucratization makes readily visible what was previously dim and obscure. (Merton 1957)
Unfortunately, the role of bureaucracy in shaping individual behavior has been far less studied by Marxists than the role of social and economic conditions. This essay will look at the nature of bureaucracy, specifically as it relates to Leninist party building methods and attempt to provide some answers as to how these eventually lead to the same undemocratic results.
The first question is, what is a bureaucracy? The starting point is the work of Max Weber, who was not the first sociologist to look at this organizational structure but has by far provided the most seminal analysis.
Weber’s description of a bureaucracy can be summed up with the following list:
- The staff members are personally free observing only the impersonal duties of their offices.
- There is a clear hierarchy of offices.
- The functions of the office are clearly specified.
- Officials are appointed on the basis of a contract.
- They are selected on the basis of a professional qualification…
- They have a money salary and usually pension rights…
- The official’s post is his sole or major occupation.
- There is a career structure and promotion is possible either by seniority or merit… (Clegg and Dunkerly 1990)
This description sums up what is usually called Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy. By ideal, he did not mean “preferable” or even that all bureaucracies followed every one of these descriptions, simply that this was a model for how bureaucracies tended to be structured. It also provided a starting point for defining this type of organization, dominated by rules and discipline.
Merton described how the discipline of Weber’s bureaucracy can dominate the life of a bureaucrat:
Discipline, readily interpreted as conformance with regulations, whatever the situation, is seen not as a measure designed for specific purposes but becomes an immediate value in the life-organization of the bureaucrat. This emphasis, resulting from the displacement of the original goals, develops into rigidities and an inability to adjust readily. Formalism, even ritualism, ensues with an unchallenged insistence upon punctilious adherence to formalized procedures. This may be exaggerated to the point where primary concern with conformity to the rules interferes with the achievement of the purposes of the organization, in which case we have the familiar phenomenon of the technicism or red tape of the official. (Merton 1957)
As far as Leninist organizations go, some of these factors apply and some do not. For example, we might say that points 2, 3, 6 and 7 more or less apply to the full-time staff of a typical Leninist organization, perhaps with some caveats. On the other hand, the points about being selected by seniority, about having professional qualifications (such as an academic diploma or passing a civil service exam) and the impersonal nature of following prescribed rules, generally do not apply to Leninists organizations and virtually nobody would want them to. Additionally, discipline is a problem for Leninist organizations but for very different reasons.
So Weber’s ideal type only gets us so far. In all fairness, Weber also discussed at length the problems of bureaucracy, but the problems are not at the center of his definition. This is a source of confusion because in common conversation bureaucracy is always a bad thing, and yet from looking at sociological definitions of the term it can be neutral or even positive. This is an unfortunate holdover from the Weberian view, which sees bureaucracy as efficient and rational, so much so that modern societies traps us all in an “iron cage” of rational organizing which limits individual freedoms. The term “bureaucracy” typically conjures an organization that is neither rational nor efficient.
What we are getting at is that there are at least two common usages of the term of bureaucracy. One is what we will call “administrative bureaucracy,” which is largely what Weber was describing. This is a complex organizational apparatus, often attached to another organization, which is routine, rule bound and has multiple levels of hierarchy. When people informally describe a bureaucracy, they often–though not always–mean something like this. To be “bureaucratic” in this sense means to be dominated by arbitrary rules and an excessively complicated and rigid division of labor. The neoliberal administrative bureaucracy probably does not guarantee a pension or a lifelong career, but it does situate workers and managers into an organization to carry out some work for some purpose. However, it is often so complex that it can become inefficient or even an obstacle toward its presumed goals. We all deal with these bureaucracies every time we have to deal with a government agency or even a corporate office, and many of us work for them.
This organizational form often leads to another, which is an organization that has become an end in and of itself. In other words, it has become institutionalized. An apparatus–probably another apparatus beyond the initial administrative apparatus–is often developed to protect this institution. This includes protecting and extending its finances, developing an ideological shield to justify it and paying a full-time staff to carry all of this out. We will call this an institutional bureaucracy, but it needs to be pointed out that, while an administrative bureaucracy can and often does lead to an institutional bureaucracy, other organizations become institutionalized as well.
Philip Selznick described this process well:
In what is perhaps its most significant meaning, “to institutionalize” is to infuse with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand. The prizing of social machinery beyond its technical role is largely a reflection of the unique way in which it fulfills personal or group needs. Whenever individuals become attached to an organization or a way of doing things as persons rather than as technicians, the result is prizing of the device for its own sake . . . The test of infusion with value is expendability. If an organization is merely an instrument, it will be readily altered or cast aside when a more efficient tool becomes available . . . The transformation of expendable organizations into institutions is marked by a concern for self-maintenance. (Selznick 2011, p 17-20)
When revolutionaries have talked about the bureaucratization of unions or the post-revolutionary Soviet state, they typically described a process where these organizations were becoming at best sterile and at worst undemocratic and hostile to the working-class. Whether or not there were complex rules or the staff had a pensions was irrelevant. Bureaucratization in these cases meant institutionalization, just as Selznick, and many others far more radical than him, have described it.
In short, we should be less concerned with whether an organization is or is not a bureaucracy, falling into a rabbit hole of analysis over when an organization crosses the line, and more concerned with the process of bureaucratization or institutionalization. This process happens in organizations all the time, whether or not the organization has officially become a bureaucracy. The question is why and how organizations bureaucratize, not whether an organization does or does not fit into Weber’s definition.
The question is not whether Leninist groups mirror the Department of Motors Vehicles–they do not, under virtually any circumstances–but whether they are democratic, whether their leadership is accountable to the members and to the class struggle, and whether they are creative or conform to rote habits.
As Castoriadis described the nature of the problem in terms more useful to this discussion:
Briefly, bureaucratization has meant that the fundamental social relationship of modern capitalism, the relationship between directors and executants, has reproduced itself within the labor movement, and in two forms: first, within the workers’ organizations, which have responded to the enlargement and multiplication of their tasks by adopting a bourgeois model of organization, instaurating a greater and greater division of labor until a new stratum of leaders has crystallized, separate from the mass of militants who from then on are reduced to the role of executants; and second between working-class organizations and the proletariat itself. (Castoriadis 1959)
These two types of separation are central to the discussion of bureaucracy for revolutionary organizations.
Organizations and goals
When we say that bureaucratization or institutionalization is the process whereby an organization becomes an end in itself, we are essentially talking about the organization and its goals. Specifically, a bureaucracy in this sense is an organization which gets in the way of accomplishing its own goals. An administrative bureaucracy can certainly develop along these lines and become an institutional bureaucracy because of its own inefficiency. On the other hand an institution can develop without being dominated by rules and a division of labor, but rather as a result of moralistic attitudes toward the organization, and these attitudes themselves can become the obstacle.
A common assumption about organizational goals is that organizations both consciously set their goals and strive for them in a rational manner, and that stated goals and actual goals are one and the same. These assumptions were held uncritically by sociologists for some time, though this is no longer the case. Charles Perrow provided a different framework that helped to challenge these assumption by describing the difference between “official” and “operative” goals:
Official goals are the general purposes of the organization as put forth in the charter, annual reports, public statements by key executives and other authoritative announcements . . . This level of analysis is inadequate for a full understanding of organizational behavior. Official goals are purposely vague and general and do not indicate two major factors which influence organizational behavior: the host of decisions that must be made among alternative ways of achieving official goals and the priority of multiple goals, and the many unofficial goals pursued by groups within the organization. . . Operative goals designate the ends sought through the actual operating policies of the organization; they tell us what the organization actually is trying to do, regardless of what the official goals say they are. . . In one sense they are means to official goals, but since the latter are vague or of high abstraction, the “means” become ends in themselves when the organization is the object of analysis. (Perrow 1961)
Every organization has, at minimum, two goals. First, there are the stated goals of the organization, the reason why the organization was created in the first place and what they tell people are there goals both internally and externally. Second, there are the goals of the organization itself. That is, whether it was planned or not, there are organizational goals such as keeping everybody in the organization involved and engaged, creating a leadership and a staff that can get things done and raising money so that the organization can carry out its work. In short, organizations have their own needs and act by their own rules. Once groups of people collectively attempt to carry out some common work, there are new problems that arise due to the basic problems that groups of people always face.
This may seem bizarre, and in fact there is often little that is rational about organizational behavior, but this irrationality is quite common and ordinary and has little to do with revolutionary organization or even Leninism in particular. The very existence of most Leninist organizations is predicated on the idea that they have a strategy to accomplish their official goals, unlike their competition, though in the end they usually fail because they do not understand the source of these problems.
An illuminating example comes from Irving Janis who discussed an experience from a group whose official goal was to quit smoking, but whose unstated organizational goal won out:
One heavy smoker, a middle-aged business executive, took issue with this consensus [that it was impossible to completely quit smoking immediately], arguing that by using will power he had stopped smoking since joining the group and that everyone else could do the same. His declaration was followed by a heated discussion . . . Most of the others ganged up against the man who was deviating from the group consensus. Then, at the beginning of the next meeting, the deviant announced that he had made an important decision. “When I joined,” he said, “I agreed to follow the the two main rules required by the clinic–to make a conscientious effort to stop smoking and to attend every meeting. But I have learned from experience in this group that you can only follow one of the rules, you can’t follow both. And so I have decided that I will continue to attend every meeting but I have gone back to smoking again until after the last meeting.” Whereupon, the other members beamed at him and applauded enthusiastically, welcoming him back to the fold. (Janis 1982, p8)
Leninist organizations both absorb and drive away members with this same dynamic on a regular basis.
The other problem is that the goal of a Leninist organization, societal transformation, is so long-term that there is almost no way that it can be measured. No Leninist would ever say that the only way they can judge whether they have accomplished their goals is to wait until the end of their life and look back and decide whether or not they have failed or succeeded. There must be medium-term goals–rebuilding a left-wing and militant political tendency within the labor movement, for example–and short term goals–growth and implantation. Assuming that these all flow in a straight line from short- to medium- to long-term goals would be a disaster.
For example, some Leninist organizations choose to run their members for union office. The goal is not to reform the union but to give the rank-and-file a voice in the leadership which can fight in its interest against a conservative bureaucracy. But in order to win union office, they must win votes and build alliances among those they disagree with. The day-to-day pressures of doing what is necessary to win union office take over, and soon enough the struggle to win votes from moderately liberal workers overtakes the struggle to bring radical politics into the workplace, because it is assumed that bringing in radical politics can only be achieved after winning election. This strategy, unsurprisingly, has been a disaster for radicals in the labor movement.
The problem is not that radicals have soiled their hands with a reform effort. The problem is that the short-term goal has actually convinced them to put off efforts toward the long-term goal, and they put this off indefinitely as there is always some immediate short-term effort that becomes the priority. Once we have achieved the short-term goal, then we can really unleash our real program, they tell themselves. But once the short-term goal has been achieved without preparation for transitioning to the medium-term goals, then the goals themselves begin to change. More often, though, they remain stuck in a rut, striving toward the short-term goals indefinitely.
Division of labor
A fundamental aspect of all forms of bureaucracy, administrative and institutional, is a division of labor. However, this takes two different forms, though again they can lead to common results.
The first form is the vertical division of labor, in which there develops a differentiation between the leaders and the led, the administrators and the administrative. This tends to mirror the class divisions of society, if not between the working class and the capitalist class, at least between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie–the intellectuals and managers of society. So often, this latter group plays a significant role in organizations and social movements. They tend to be able to speak and write more effectively, administer more efficiently and understand the theoretical problems more thoroughly–or at least everybody assumes that they can–which leads to them playing an outsized role as leaders.
Ernest Mandel described this tendency in a book about bureaucracy:
The problem of bureaucracy within the working-class movement arises from the fact that full-timers and petty-bourgeois intellectuals come to occupy the middle and top functions of a permanent apparatus. As long as the working-class organizations are limited to small groups, there is no apparatus, no full-timers, and so the phenomenon does not present itself . . . However, the development of mass political or trade-union organization is inconceivable without an apparatus of full-timers and functionaries. (Mandel 1992, p59)
There is of course another form of division of labor, which is the horizontal divide. This is not so much a divide between leaders and led, or manager and workers, or important people and little people. This is simply the expected division of tasks in a complex organization, in which there is a significant amount of work to do that must be divided up among sub-groups. Even a small social movement or activist coalition will divide up work between outreach and publicity efforts, with some people engaging labor unions and churches and others focused on leafleting specific neighborhoods. This divide need not result in any power disparity at all, unlike the vertical division which constantly threatens this.
The horizontal divide may seem “natural” but the vertical divide can as well. The latter is not merely a result of bad ideas or power-hungry would-be-Stalins, but is also a result of the material reality that a movement or organization finds itself in. Mandel described the material base of the problem elsewhere:
Bureaucracy in workers organisations is a product of the social division of labour, i.e., of the inability of the working masses, who are largely excluded from the cultural and theoretical process of production under capitalism, to themselves regularly take care of all the tasks which must be dealt with within the framework of their organisation. Attempts to do this anyway, as was often done at the onset of the workers movement, provide no solution because this division of labour completely corresponds to material conditions and is in no way invented by wicked careerists. (Mandel 1970)
It is not simply an accident but a product of society. A petty bourgeois with a college education and computer skills will be in a far better position to edit a movement newspaper, for example, than somebody who does not hail from this background. In pre-revolutionary Russia with its widespread illiteracy, it simply was not feasible for many workers and peasants to play a significant role in the production of a newspaper or even leaflets.
But is it really necessary for manual workers to rely on intellectuals to take care of these tasks for them? There is certainly valuable assistance that can be provided among skilled class traitors from a privileged background, but in a country with widespread illiteracy, how critical is a revolutionary newspaper anyway? More importantly, these positions need not be enshrined as holding the same superiority in an organization or social movement as they are in society as a whole. People who take on these roles can be disciplined and treated as servants of the movement, and not the leaders, as long as there is a conscious strategy to do so.
It is partly the result of the Leninist obsession with leadership–not real leadership in the class, on the shop floor or in a neighborhood, but leadership in the organization itself–that provides these leaders with their oversized importance. It is a result of the importance of their positions, the party’s reliance on them as individuals and the reliance on the paid staff on their jobs, that makes these leaders so indispensable to the party, even though they are often utterly dispensable to the class. There is a tendency for this to occur among the petty bourgeois leaders, but the same is true among working class leaders who takes these positions as well. Either way, these full-time administrator play a central role, whether anybody wants it or not, in the development of an undemocratic institution.
The iron law of oligarchy
On the eve Word War I and the capitulation of European Social Democracy to imperialism, Robert Michels, a student of Weber’s, wrote the book Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. (Michels 2008) It provides an in depth look at the undemocratic and bureaucratic nature of the classic social democratic parties with an emphasis on Germany and Italy. Michels provides a highly flawed account, often with a dim view of workers ever being able to collectively organize anything, but he also analysed the degeneration of these parties years before Lenin did. At times his analysis is not only pessimistic but outright reactionary, and these views eventually led him into the arms of Mussolini. Yet, his text, written years before the collapse of the Second International in support of imperialism, remains the most thorough and insightful look into the party structures created by socialists and how they invariably develop an authoritarian hierarchy.
Michels put it bluntly when he describes the “iron law of oligarchy:”
It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy. (p 401)
Political Parties ought to be read not only by Leninists but by anybody who aims to develop a revolutionary political organization of any size, which is precisely why Michels is so often ignored. His text is worth reading, discussing and debating in full, therefore his insights will be quoted extensively below. One does not have to agree with his conclusions to learn from his unparalleled analysis. Moreover, it is really the failure of the socialist Left to provide a deeper and more thoroughgoing analysis of their own parties which requires us to continue to grapple with Michels’ work. Those who believe they are the missionaries of world-historic social transformation do not really want Michels getting in the way of their project, but this is precisely why we must read him. After 100 years of failed Leninist projects, we fall back to Michels because Leninists have not provided us an alternative analysis.
Michels wrote at length about the bureaucratization of socialist parties and his work is worth studying in depth. However, we will focus specifically on his analysis of the undemocratic nature of the leadership of these organizations.
According to Michels, one problem is that the leadership of an organization assumes their inherent right to their position and see every attack on them as an attack on the organization itself:
One who holds the office of delegate acquires a moral right to that office, and delegates remain in office unless removed by extraordinary circumstances or in obedience to rules observed with exceptional strictness. An election made for a definite purpose becomes a life incumbency. Custom becomes a right. One who has for a certain time held the office of delegate ends by regarding that office as his own property. If refused reinstatement, he threatens reprisals (the threat of resignation being the least serious among these) which will tend to sow confusion among his comrades, and this confusion will continue until he is victorious. (p 45)
But the membership cannot help but draw the same conclusion, and not only because they have been hoodwinked by usurpers:
The dismissal by the organised masses of a universally esteemed leader would discredit the party throughout the country. Not only would the party suffer from being deprived of its leaders, if matters were thus pushed to an extreme, but the political reaction upon the status of the party would be immeasurably disastrous. (p 85)
There is therefore a strong pressure against holding leaders accountable for their misdeeds because that would often make the party look even worse than simply allowing these things to continue. It is much easier, most of the time, to pretend that everything is fine.
Michels also quotes Prince Bismarck, cynically but accurately, on the career path of the socialist leader:
The position of socialist agitator has today become a regular industry, just like any other. A man becomes an agitator or a popular orator as in former days he became a smith or a carpenter. One who adopts this new occupation is often much better off than if he had kept at his old work, gaining a more agreeable and freer life, one which in certain circles brings him more respect. (p 274)
The lack of an “industry” for socialist agitation today is only a sign of the failure of these organizations. But one industry which provides neverending career opportunities for the budding socialist leader is the union bureaucracy, a far more lucrative source of income with more opportunities for self-promotion than the small socialist sect. Negotiating the rate of exploitation can push an individual revolutionary into a prominent and powerful role:
If a struggle becomes inevitable, the leader undertakes prolonged negotiations with the enemy; the more protracted these negotiations, the more often is his name repeated in the newspapers and by the public. If he continues to express “reasonable opinions,” he may be sure of securing at once the praise of his opponents and (in most cases) the admiring gratitude of the crowd. (p 306)
This is the very basis for the vacillating nature of the labor bureaucracy and its particular character in between two classes. What seems to be good for the party–playing a mediating role–is in fact completely compatible with the capitalist system. The conservatism that follows from this position should be obvious.
Workers who do rise to prominence not in a union but in the socialist bureaucracy become tied to the organization, as being removed from their position can be a life disaster, sending them hurtling backward in terms of status, income and working conditions:
When the leaders are not persons of means and when they have no other source of income, they hold firmly to their positions for economic reasons, coming to regard the functions they exercise as theirs by inalienable right. Especially is this true of manual workers who, since becoming leaders, have lost aptitude for their former occupation. For them, the loss of their positions would be a financial disaster, and in most cases it would be altogether impossible for them to return to their old way of life. They have been spoiled for any other work than that of propaganda. Their hands have lost the callosities of the manual toiler, and are likely to suffer only from writer’s cramp. (p 208)
It is chiefly in the modern labour movement that such men now seek and obtain the opportunity of improving their situation, an opportunity which industry no longer offers. The movement represents for them a new and loftier mode of life, and offers at the same time a new branch of employment, with a chance, which continually increases as the organization grows, that they will be able to secure a rise in the social scale. There can be no doubt that the socialist party, with its posts of honour, which are almost always salaried, exercises a potent stimulus upon active-minded youths of the working class from the very outset of their adhesion to its ranks. Those who are keen in political matters, and also those among the workers who possess talent as writers or speakers, cannot fail to experience the magnetic influence of a party which offers so rich a field for the use and development of their talents. (p 273)
But the same is true for socialist leaders of bourgeois origin, for they too have made a career and a lifestyle in the socialist bureaucracy from which they cannot easily remove themselves, even if they could have avoided it altogether years earlier:
Those leaders, again, who are refugees from the bourgeoisie are used up after having devoted a few years to the service of the socialist party. It was as youthful enthusiasts that they joined the organized workers and soon attained to dominant positions. The life they then had to lead, however great may have been its advantages in certain respects, was one full of fatigue and hardship, and, like all careers in which fame can be acquired, was extremely exhausting to the nervous system. Such men grow old before their time. What are they to do? They have become estranged from their original profession, which is altogether out of relation with their chosen vocation of professional politician. . .
They crossed the Rubicon when they were still young students, still full of optimism and juvenile ardour. Having gone over to the other side of the barricade to lead the enemies of the class from which they sprang, they have fought and worked, now suffering defeats and now gaining victories. Youth has fled; their best years have been passed in the service of the party or of the ideal. They are ageing, and with the passing of youth, their ideals have also passed, dispersed by the contrarieties of daily struggles, often, too, expelled by newly acquired experiences which conflict with the old beliefs. Thus it has come to pass that many of the leaders are inwardly estranged from the essential content of socialism. Some of them carry on a difficult internal struggle against their own scepticism; others have returned, consciously or unconsciously, to the ideals of their pre-socialist youth.
Yet for those who have been thus disillusioned, no backward path is open. They are enchained by their own past. They have a family, and this family must be fed. Moreover, regard for their political good name makes them feel it essential to persevere in the old round. They thus remain outwardly faithful to the cause to which they have sacrificed the best years of their life. But, renouncing idealism, they have become opportunists. These former believers, these sometime altruists, whose fervent hearts aspired only to give themselves freely, have been transformed into sceptics and egoists whose actions are guided solely by cold calculation. (p 208-209)
Few who have ever been a part of a Leninist organization can look at the above and not feel great sympathy and even remorse at the comrades who find themselves in this situation. The full-time revolutionary staffer is rarely paid well and is often quite self-sacrificing, not only because they have far better options in life but because they willingly and somewhat selflessly enter their position understanding how unstable it will be. And yet years go by and they are shackled to their job, and the organization becomes shackled to them, neither of which can can separate from the other or make a sharp change in policy without throwing into upheaval the lives of the comrades who have given the most over the years. This is why problems in Leninist organizations fester for so long, until they break out into irreconcilable differences requiring a split, which is much more to blame than Leninist rules of democratic centralism.
There is not only a psychological pull against doing harm, but a material pull against risking one’s own career as a socialist bureaucrat. If there is anything that is emblematic of the utter dead end of the Leninist Model, it is this problem, which revolutionary organizations find themselves in again and again. A Leninist does not have to look outside of Marxism to understand or predict this predicament, rather they need only to look Marxism directly in the eye, unflinchingly appreciating the material trap they create for themselves.
Eventually, a conservative leadership on the one hand and an uncertain membership on the other transforms a revolutionary organization into an end in itself. It is not that anybody had bad ideas, or if they did that they simply could have fixed everything with good ideas, rather the problem is the social structure they created from which there appears no escape. Those who do find a reasonable and cautious path toward compromise often find that nobody else is willing to follow them. Reason is not nearly as powerful as material conditions.
Michels was dreadfully wrong about many things, but he understood these dynamics better than a century of Leninists that followed.
Oligarchy in the UK
To Michels’ analysis, we can now add more recent and concrete examples from the Socialist Workers Party (UK). Unlike the European socialist parties of Michels’ time, the SWP did not become a major force in parliamentary or even union politics, though they made notable forays into these venues. Rather, they remained a relatively small socialist organization of a few thousand, but they also survived for decades, participating in mass struggles and the official labor movement while building up a bureaucratic structure to maintain the organization–and its leaders–over the years. The SWP has since imploded after the rape and cover-up by “Comrade Delta,” the National Organizer, of a young woman in the organization. The ongoing autopsies of what remains of the SWP provide an elaboration and, if anything, a confirmation of the problems discussed by Michels, even if only in a smaller form.
One factor specifically that has come to light over the years is the SWP bureaucracy which was created to maintain the party. Specifically, there developed a top-heavy structure of full-timers who in theory carried out the work of the party but in practice carried out the work of the leadership, to whom they owed their jobs.
Decades-long member Ian Birchall described how the full-time staff became buffered from the working-class:
[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 [Central Committee] 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. (Birchall 2014)
This machine eventually took on a life of its own, as one blog post in particular explains in depth:
The SWP centre is a truly bizarre institution that many SWP members, particularly those outside London, quite simply know nothing about. The SWP’s 2,500 or so subs-paying members pay for the payroll of dozens of people, mostly to do work which other organisations (including most of the SWP sister groups in other nation-states) devolve to volunteer activity by regular members. The number of journalists employed on its weekly paper is something like double the full-time staff of a typical local weekly with a higher circulation. Bureaucracy, sadly, is self-justifying: there are fifteen people, more or less, paid to produce and distribute the party’s publications, and this tends to outclass any debate about the role of those publications in political activity.
There is team of people building and promoting meetings on behalf of the membership and there are even people solely gathering money. These teams exist and, naturally, have to justify their existence, so they are continually forced to act as substitutionists for activity that, in a party of leaders, one should really hope would be done by lay members. And, as branches have become less and less central to SWP members’ lives over the years and played less and less of an organisational role, it has become progressively ever more detached and bastardised from its roots. It has become the Vatican City-State of the party and is convinced, like all bureaucracies, that it must expand to meet its expanding needs. It also, like all bureaucracies, has the organisation, time and resources to put its views across and to stifle points of view that do not suit its needs. (Crane 2013)
Assignments, such as talks at the annual Marxism conference, are given out as rewards to inept organizers who insert themselves into local campaigns to disastrous results, all for the purpose of proving their worth to their paymasters, the Central Committee (CC).
The CC in turn relies on the organizers to carry out their will to deal with “problem members”–those who disagree with the CC, not those who rape their comrades–and even to stack votes so that the proper delegates–the ones who will vote for the CC proposals–are elected to the annual convention. It is an organization dedicated to reproducing itself more than anything else. In other words, it is an institutional bureaucracy. We are talking about people’s jobs here, including people who have hardly ever had to work outside the party. How could we expect them to behave otherwise?
The apparatus is a buffer between the leadership and the membership, not just in terms of bureaucratic force but as a material base of support for the CC. For so long, or far so long as they were employed by the party anyway, they have gotten their way in all cases. Every petty squabble and pointless incursion into some local branch affair always had the massive social weight of the entire leadership behind them, at times the moral authority of SWP founder Tony Cliff himself. When a significant portion of the membership began to rebel against the coverup of a rape by their leader, these petty bureaucrats saw nothing but a scurrilous attack on their position of relative social privilege.
One critic of the SWP in particular, calling himself “Soviet Goon Boy” on a blog of the same name, has taken a sociological look at the bureaucracy and the internal pressures on the membership. He described the particularly reactionary and undemocratic role that the full-time staff played during the “Delta” crisis:
There’s a constituency, mostly in the apparatus, which is positively gung-ho for a purge, the sooner and more drastic the better. These are the true-believing cultists, the people who put you in mind of Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes. At least one senior CC member has openly referred to them as ‘the nutters’. Maybe you think that’s uncharitable. But these people, concentrated in the party’s middle management, are absolutely spitting blood at every concession to the opposition, and regard much of the current CC as having gone soft. It’s from this quarter that you find plans of Baldrickesque cunning to ‘save the party’, usually involving (a) mass expulsions and (b) a new broom in the leadership, which would coincidentally see them being promoted to the CC. (Soviet Goon Boy July 2013)
Having created a structure, in the name of advancing the party, whose sole purpose is the furtherance of the careers and positions of petty bureaucrats, it is inevitable that it has continued to grow in size and seeming importance, not only to expand the prestige of those who run it but to protect themselves from the rank-and-file.
This created a social bubble among the top leadership and the paid staff going back decades, in which people keep their jobs in part by telling the leadership the lies they want to hear. As former CC member Pat Stack noted, the full-timers not only forced the policies of the CC onto the rank-and-file membership, but also:
The organisers in turn were conduits for the CC wisdom. Far from feeding back the realities of their districts they told the CC what they/we (at the time) wanted to here. Chris Harman once described organisers meetings as being like a gathering of sales reps competing to bring the best news to head office. (SWP 2013 PCB #3)
Having created this social bubble, the leadership then imposed it on the rest of the membership. One extraordinary idea that came out of this bubble was the inexplicable belief that Comrade Delta not only should be saved from “persecution” but also could be saved from an outraged membership and a horrified public at large, aghast at what they were watching. The publicity the case received throughout the British media was all deemed some sort of attack on the SWP by its enemies, begging the question of why one would not be an enemy of the SWP in these circumstances. It was not the enemies of the SWP who were the problem, but rather their friends.
Yet, the friends of the SWP, or more specifically the friends of Comrade Delta, somehow won out. The force of the leadership and the apparatus was successful at silencing dissidents, stacking votes and maneuvering around any challenge to their authority. Beyond protecting themselves, though, was the protection offered to Comrade Delta, the indispensable man, similar to how Michels described it over 100 years ago.
[T]he two medium-term priorities for the party were industrial strategy and anti-fascism, and Smith was indispensable to both. Since he’d cut his teeth campaigning against the [fascist British National Party] in Tower Hamlets in the early 1990s, Smith was the party’s anti-fascism expert – and, with Weyman Bennett often being absent on health grounds, ran [Unite Against Fascism] more or less single-handed.
Moreover, the party’s industrial strategy had morphed into a medium-term alliance with the left wing of the bureaucracy, and here Smith’s contacts going back to his days as a civil service union militant were invaluable. (Soviet Goon Boy January 2014)
In his position in Unite Against Fascism, Delta was one of the most visible SWP members in the country, even appearing on BBC. With each appearance, he increased the visibility and the prestige of the SWP and of himself. He became the indispensable man, probable more so than any other SWP member except possibly leading theoretician Alex Callinicos. The public downfall of Delta was a disaster for the party from which they will probably never recover, nor should they, and the British Left will be better off without them.
Had there not been an apparatus built up to defend the SWP as an end in itself, with dozens of people whose full-time jobs and egos and social positions depended on their leadership in the party, their might have been a painful but honest path forward from this crisis. Instead, the SWP collapsed under the weight of its own bureaucracy and only continues under the delusions of their remaining members that their obstinance and blindness and destructiveness are not mostly to blame.
Their NGOs and ours
Much of the above might lead one to the conclusion that all is lost, that any grouping of people of any size will inherently lead to an authoritarian hierarchy. However, to accept that there is a single “iron law of oligarchy” is an undialectical view of the problem, which only looks at one side of the contradiction. As Alvin Gouldner wrote:
When, for example, Michels spoke of the “iron law of oligarchy,” he attended solely to the ways in which organizational needs inhibit democratic possibilities. But the very same evidence to which he called attention could enable us to formulate the very opposite theorem–the “iron law of democracy.” Even as Michels himself saw, if oligarchical waves repeatedly wash away the bridges of democracy, this eternal recurrence can happen only because men doggedly rebuild them after each inundation . . . There cannot be an iron law of oligarchy, however, unless there is an iron law of democracy. (Gouldner 1955)
Every time there is a bureaucrat in a workers’ organization clinging to power, it is only because they need to do so to keep the workers from ruling over themselves. It may be the case that most of the time bureaucracy seems to win out, but only because it is so beneficial to class society and because the bureaucratic method is so ingrained in the status quo. It is the default option–it is natural, we are led to believe.
This simply means that revolutionary struggles need to struggle against bureaucratic tendencies rather than accept an organizational model that seems inevitable. Of course, developing organizational strategies to avoid bureaucracy can inadvertently develop bureaucratic features themselves. There is no easy solution, for if there were it would have won out long ago. So much of the struggle against capitalism is not only against the obviously oppressive machinery of the state but against the invisible assumptions that we do not even realize are oppressive.
We obviously need some practical lessons to learn from all this, so we will look at two proposals, one specific and one general.
The first, general issue that revolutionary organizations need to deal with is avoiding straying too far from their official goals and the immediate tasks and needs of the working class. The further away from the immediate problems of the working class, the more likely the organization is going to become an end in itself, with the unstated goal being to provide a comfortable social space for the members or to keep the full-time staff employed. Consider an example of organization that has strayed far from its goals. For example, holding a fundraiser to support the salary of a full-time treasurer, so this person can manage the accounts that pay a staff of full-timers, who can participate in an electoral campaign, which–hopefully!–can play a role in mobilizing the working class, this is so far removed from the class struggle that it should not be surprising and the staff become an end in itself.
Whether or not one succeeds in doing such things is irrelevant. One might excel at it, as some organizations have, but this is merely excelling at building an NGO. Fundraisers and meetings and other organizational trappings that bring the working class no closer to self-organization can easily fall into a cycle of organizational reproduction. So keeping organization close to the real tasks is one broad proposal.
The question for revolutionaries is, why would anybody bother doing this? People who have normal jobs outside the organization often wonder whether they are wasting their lives keeping this cycle going, but the full-time Leninist staff rarely ask this question. It is sometimes astonishing how unconcerned the latter are with wasting peoples time with the same failed methods over and over again. The pointless cycle of organizational reproduction does not bother them one bit, for this is the circle of life. What bothers them is when the members suddenly stop doing these things, bringing their positions into crisis.
Continuing this cycle requires high morale, which is often maintained by endless predictions of a new era and new opportunities just around the corner. These odd perspectives pushed by the full-time staff are so common among Leninists precisely because there is no other way to motivate the membership to continue doing this endless busy work when they would rather be fighting capitalism. The fundamentally different material relationship of the full-time leader and the “lay” member to the organization, and how the work of the organization affects them and their lives, is precisely the root of the separation between the leaders and the members.
The permanent staff cling to their positions not out of mere selfishness but because at some point losing one’s position after decades is genuinely a life disaster. There is no reason, though, why such a position needs to be held for longer than 6 to 24 months. There is no reason why these positions need to be held by the highest elected officials in the organization, rather than by people who serve the organization temporarily. If these full-time positions really do need to be held for decades in order to produce a successful revolutionary workers organization, we need to step back and ask whether the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself, or the act of a full-time staff with Ivy League degrees and no experience in the labor movement. To ask the question is to answer it.
Building a struggle which is anti-Stalinist, which does not accept the superior position of the union bureaucracy, which looks not for better bureaucrats but for no bureaucrats at all, has to be the way forward. Shedding decades of failed strategies, not least among them the Leninist Model, is not even half the solution but merely a small step forward. We cannot replace What is to be done? with a new manual for revolution, for that is precisely how the revolutionary Left has trapped itself in self-serving sectarian bureaucracies with little to show for itself a decade and a half into the twenty-first century.
We have much to learn from history but we are starting virtually from scratch. There is no new model for revolutionary organization other than experimentation. We will not find a way forward because the new Lenin pulls out a theory of organization fully formed which only needs to be put into practice. On the contrary, as this series of articles has attempted to argue, the rightness and wrongness of these models are far less relevant than the very idea that there is some ahistorical rightness or wrongness toward which we are striving.
We will learn to build revolutionary organizations by building up the self-organization of the working class.
If we are to end the current century differently than we ended the last, it will not be by reproducing the failures of the last century, only doing them better this time and with better people. Rather, it will be by seeking out new models and strategies for the actual problems that are faced today. This means putting resistance to state violence and capitalist exploitation at the very center of the revolutionary project, but it also means grappling with and understanding their unique character under neoliberalism.
If only there were a Lenin who could point the way, the task would be so easy. Instead, we should look to Debs, or at the very least to his famous remark:
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.
The great danger is not only that we forget Debs’ remark. Rather, the great, tragic mistake of the twentieth century Left is insisting that we do not want to be led, all the while being led by somebody who claims to be an anti-Moses.
There is a way forward, and we are woefully behind in the struggle against capital, but we should not lament the lack of a blueprint. Instead, we should embrace the challenge of experimenting with new, radical, uncontainable forms of struggle before the blueprint-mongers come along with the new Ten Commandments to keep everybody from learning anything new.
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Gouldner, Alvin W., “Metaphysical Pathos and the Theory of Bureaucracy,” The American Political Science Review Vol. 49, No. 2 (Jun., 1955), pp. 496-507, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1951818.
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Soviet Goon Boy, “This is the way the party ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper,” January 2014, http://sovietgoonboy.wordpress.com/2014/01/01/this-is-the-way-the-party-ends-not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper/.