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The SWP: An Undemocratic, Leninist Organisation

In view of the undemocratic nature of the SWP, which has recently been exposed, we reproduce below part of an education document we produced about them in 1995.

At the beginning of 1968 the IS (International Socialists) group was organised on relatively democratic lines. There were branches; there was an annual conference of branch delegates which debated and voted on motions proposed by branches; there was an executive committee elected by the branches and responsible for the week-to-week administration of the group’s affairs and for the implementation of conference decisions.

Within the framework of the group’s overall political position, branches were free to choose which line of activity to engage in; some chose to concentrate on the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign; others on tenants’ associations; others on combating racism; others on students, and so on. In the light of the various momentous events of 1968, which had led to a tripling of the size of his organisation, Cliff decided that this was not good enough and inaugurated a campaign to rein in branch autonomy. He proposed a more centralised structure which would allow the group’s interventions in the various struggles that were going on at any time to be organised in a more co-ordinated way; the body that would co-ordinate and to a certain extent direct the activities of the branches was to be the executive committee.

Since some degree of centralism is compatible with democracy, indeed is necessary to make it effective, this seemed a reasonable proposal and it was eventually accepted. In Cliff’s mind, however, this change was not seen as a move to make democracy function more effectively but as a step towards changing the IS group into an organisation based on Leninist ‘democratic centralist’ lines in which the executive committee would become a policy-making leadership.

IS entered the 70s with a constitution which was still recognisably democratic, similar in fact to the rulebook of a typical trade union. The annual conference remained the body which made the major policy decisions; its purpose remained to discuss the report of the executive committee and to debate and vote on motions proposed by branches. A given number of weeks before the conference branches were invited to submit motions; these were included in a provisional agenda that was sent to branches to allow them to submit amendments, which were then circulated in the form of a finished agenda for branches to vote and mandate their Conference delegates on. To take account of the increase in membership a new body was established between the Conference and the EC – the National Committee. The members of this large committee (of some 40 members) were elected by the conference from nominations made by branches and in turn they elected the EC from amongst their number; they met on a regular basis in between conferences to hear reports from the EC.

Cliff, however, was still not satisfied with this structure. The main problem for him was that it didn’t give the EC as the leadership a free enough hand since, at least on paper, it was still subject to some degree of control by the National Committee which elected it. Various ways were found round this: the composition of the EC was changed; its members were all made full-time officials; the EC arrogated to itself greater powers. In the end, however, the group’s constitution was changed to end the EC’s formal status as an emanation of the National Committee. In l975 the EC was given the more Leninist-sounding name of ‘central committee’ and was to be elected by the Conference rather than the National Committee; this latter was reduced to the role of a purely advisory body to the new Central Committee.

It was with this structure that the IS became the SWP at the beginning of 1977. But, as the experience of all trade unions (and, according to the partisans of the so-called ‘iron law of oligarchy’, of all large organisations) shows, there is a difference between an organisation’s formal constitution and the way it actually functions. On paper, the SWP’s statutes still allow some degree of democratic control by the membership: the branches could still decide policy and could still control the Central Committee through electing to it only those who carried out their will as decided at the annual Conference; the National Committee could check in between Conferences that the Central Committee was implementing Conference decisions. But this is not the way the SWP works in practice; nor is it the way it is supposed to work since such control from below, by the membership, has no place in the theory of ‘democratic centralism’ as laid down by Lenin.

David Lane has provided an objective and neutral description of what Lenin meant by this term:

‘By ‘democratic’ Lenin understood that decisions should be resolved according to majority vote of the central committee (of the executive) of the Party and that all Party members had the right to participate in general Party policy-making. The Party Congress was to be supreme over policy. There were to be periodic elections of the leading officers of the Party (. . .). By ‘centralism’, Lenin meant that once general policy was agreed, the day-to-day operation of the Party had to be decided centrally, where all information and the Party leadership are located, and the decisions of central bodies were absolutely binding on lower bodies. In Lenin’s view, democratic centralism was a synthesis between democracy and central control: it gave members the right to participation and it gave a creative role for the leadership’ (Leninism: A Sociological Interpretation, 1981, p 48).

Such a structure institutionalises the principle of leadership. Most existing political parties and trade unions do operate on this basis, where those at the top make all the keys decisions and generally control the organisation. Normally, however, this is not how these organisations are supposed to function; they are supposed to be controlled by their members. In this sense the practice of leadership is a departure from their formal constitutions and rulebooks. Leninism makes a virtue of this by not accepting that it is desirable that a political organisation of the sort they want should be organised on the basis of democratic control, and maximum participation in decision-making, by the membership. They are not afraid of the ‘iron law of oligarchy’. They like it and want to facilitate its operation, indeed to institutionalise it.

The SWP is unashamedly a leadership organisation, not just in the sense that it seeks to lead the working class but also in the sense that it is organised internally on a leadership basis; in fact on a hierarchical basis where each layer of leadership has power over the levels below it, with the party’s national leadership – the members of its central committee – at the top.

The national leadership decides everything important and then seeks to get the membership to follow their lead. This is not necessarily a difficult task since the membership, who also believe in the organisational principle of ‘democratic centralism’, accept the leading role of the leadership and are generally prepared to follow. So Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ places an enormous power in the hands of the leaders and in practice reduces the rank-and-file members to a mere consultative role.

Conference procedure
In Lenin’s scheme, as described by Lane, the supreme policy-making body is the Party Congress; this decides the general line which the Central Committee has to follow until the next Congress. This is the theory; the practice is that the Central Committee completely dominates the Congress (or Conference, as in one concession to the more normal usage in Britain, the SWP’s Congress is called).

The main item on the agenda is a report by the Central Committee on the political ‘perspectives’ which is usually a document of pamphlet-length. The Central Committee also submits other reports – on work in special areas of activity (industry, students, women), internal organisation, finance – for the Conference to discuss. In the SWP, branches still have the formal right to submit motions, but they are strongly discouraged from doing so. As an explanatory note intended for new members, accompanying documents submitted for the party’s 1983 Conference put it:

‘Branches can submit resolutions if they wish and these may [sic] be voted on. But in recent years the practice of sending resolutions to conference has virtually ceased’ (Socialist Review, September 1983).

What this means is that it is the Central Committee – the leadership – which quite literally sets the agenda for the Conference. The branch delegates meet, therefore, to discuss only what is put before them by the Central Committee. Not that the delegates are delegates in the proper sense of the term as instructed representatives of the branches sending them:

‘Delegates should not be mandated . . . Mandating is a trade union practice, with no place in a revolutionary party.’

Since voting on motions submitted by branches is dismissed as a ‘trade union practice’, another procedure, more open to manipulation by the leadership, is operated:

‘At the end of each session of conference commissions are elected to draw up a report on the session detailing the points made. In the event of disagreement two or more commissions can be elected by the opposing delegates. The reports are submitted to conference and delegates then vote in favour of one of the commissions. The advantage of this procedure is that conference does not have to proceed by resolution like a trade union conference.’

No branch motions, no mandated delegates, what else? No ballots of the entire membership either. In the first volume of his political biography of Lenin, Cliff records in shocked terms that ‘in January 1907 Lenin went so far as to argue for the institution of a referendum of all party members on the issues facing the party’, commenting ‘certainly a suggestion which ran counter to the whole idea of democratic centralism’ (Lenin, Building the Party, p. 280).

In fact no official of the SWP above branch level is directly elected by a vote of the members. One power that the branches do retain is the right to nominate members for election, by the Conference delegates, to the National Committee, but, as over presenting motions, they are discouraged from nominating people who do not accept the “perspectives” espoused by the Central Committee. So elections do take place to the National Committee but on the basis of personalities rather than politics. However, it is the way that the Central Committee is elected that is really novel: the nominations for election to new central committee are proposed not by branches but . . . by the outgoing central committee! Once again, in theory, branches can present other names but they never do.

It is easy to see how this means that the central committee – the supreme leadership of the organisation – is a self-perpetuating body renewed in effect only by co-optation. This is justified on the grounds of continuity and efficiency – it takes time to gain the experience necessary to become a good leader, so that it would be a waste of the experience gained if some leader were to be voted off by the vagaries of a democratic vote. Choosing the leadership by a competitive vote is evidently something else ‘with no place in a revolutionary party’ any more than in an army.

The full education document can be found here:


How the SWP Central Committee is selected

The CC consists of members elected by Conference according to the following procedure:

The outgoing Central Committee selects and circulates a provisional slate for the new CC at the beginning of the period of pre-Conference discussion. This is then discussed at the district aggregates where comrades can propose alternative slates.

At the Conference the outgoing CC proposes a final slate (which may have been changed as a result of the pre-Conference discussion). This slate, along with any other that is supported by a minimum of five delegates, is discussed and voted on by Conference. ((Rule 5 SWP Constitution)