Guest post: On the historical experiences of IS and SWP with factions

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Note: The following essay has been submitted by an SWP member who would prefer to remain anonymous, and is intended to shed some historical light on questions of current interest.

In his essay On Party Democracy John Molyneux correctly remarked that the formation of factions in democratic centralist parties and organisations like ours is part and parcel of our tradition. He also made clear that he is uncertain as to whether they are an appropriate part of party democracy today. This essay argues that in most conceivable circumstances they are not only conceivable as an important mechanism by which the party can function democratically but are a necessary part of that democracy. Although it must also be clear that in arguing for the right to form factions we are not arguing that comrades ought to form them as it is also clear from examining the record that they often come with a cost. We need then to examine the record and indicate ways and means by which factions can enhance party democracy and any damage they might cause can be limited. Such an enterprise must also indicate the rights and duties of both the membership and the central leadership of the party with regard to its democratic functioning.

There can be no doubt that we have entered a new period of class struggles that offers our party the chance to build deeper roots within the working classes. That the comrades are determined to make the best of opportunities presented to them cannot be doubted. Similarly there is a renewed determination within our party to develop our understanding of the world, through the deepening of Marxism as a critical theory, and thereby enable our class to exchange capitalist ‘reality’ for communist utopia. But there is considerable questioning within the organisation as to what this means especially in light of what is seen by many comrades as a top down approach on the part of the leadership.

The question then arises as to what party democrats need to do in order to reform the group. This is not an easy question to answer but the preferred option of the leadership to deepen the education of members, while a positive step forward, will not suffice in the least. Certainly it is important for comrades to have an understanding of the history and traditions of our movement. In fact it is vital that such knowledge, at least at a basic level, is in the possession of every comrade but far more important is the ability to think like a Marxist that is to say to think critically. And perhaps it is true that education programmes will help enable comrades to learn to think in this manner especially in conjunction with events like the annual Marxism school. But even if every single comrade in the group becomes an expert in Marxian theory and revolutionary history this will not change anything other than the verbosity of contributions at meetings.

The problem in the SWP is not to be located in specific organisational structures, although these may or may not be appropriate for the period we are passing through, but was correctly identified by Harman as a problem of the party’s culture. The top down approach that characterised the group for many long years, especially during the period when John Rees seemed to be first among equals, is only one aspect of this culture if the most obvious one. More importantly it also coloured and continues to colour the manner by way of which the groups militants relate to allies on the left. If a certain degree of sectism was a product of the Downturn years then such attitudes need to be jettisoned in the changed and far more positive circumstances of today.

It is however all too easy to blame individual leaders for the poor culture long prevalent in the group. Events since the departure of John Rees have however shown that not even he can be held to be the sole cause of the rot which set in long before he was elevated to the CC. Rather than seek to discover which individuals are responsible for the groups damaged culture we need to ask what were the objective factors, far more powerful than the role of individuals after all, which shaped that culture. The answer that it was the Downturn simply will not suffice albeit it is correct in essence. We need to take a short look at the group’s history.

When it was founded in 1950 the then Socialist Review Group was a tiny organisation which worked within the Labour Party, Trades Unions and later through the NCLC. For ten years it experienced very little growth but was able to maintain a public press of a remarkably high standard indicating the high level of Marxist culture within the group. But this high level of Marxist culture also indicates that the group was surrounded by and immersed in the labour movement of the day which was deformed in many ways by Stalinism but was far larger and more active than anything any but the oldest members of the SWP have ever known. Having to defend their oft heretical views against a reformism that still had adherents numbering tens of thousands, a left reformism deformed by Stalinism and last and least against various orthodox (sic) Trotskyist sects meant that members of the SRG simply had to know their stuff.

The slow growth of the group between 1958 and 1968 saw many of the same conditions working on comrades of what was by now IS. Given the internecine conflicts in the Young Socialists the necessity of being able to hold ones own in debate was even more important than previously as things began to heat up slowly in industry. In fact it was the industrial orientation of IS that marked it out as being different from other entrist groups and enabled it to begin to recruit cadre drawn from heavy industry and engineering. As much as for comrades in the YS it was vital that comrades in industry knew their stuff given the importance of the CPGB and the rising, if very sectional, shop stewards movement.

1968 saw IS move to a Democratic Centralist form of organisation and that year saw a multitude of factions appear and, once they were of the opinion that they were no longer beneficial to IS, dissolve. With one exception but I’ll return to that later. It would appear that functioning with a veritable plethora of factions did not inhibit the growth of IS and indeed might possibly have aided that growth. It is certainly the case that they helped to crystallise debate within IS in a fashion that was usually, if not always, positive. IS was to continue with the same liberal regime until December 1971 with no discernable problems arising from the right to form factions. Although as nobody saw fit to form a faction that is hardly surprising.

However there was a ‘faction’ working within IS from 1968 to late 1971 but its character was not that of a faction but rather that of a parasitic sect. This was, as is well known, the Matgamna group which operated under the name of the Trotskyist Tendency (sic) while in IS. Details of its politics and exploits can be found here, here and here as, in the last document linked to, can be found an explanation as to the fundamental character of a faction. Unlike earlier factions the Trotskyist tendency did inhibit the proper functioning of IS at a time of great opportunities. As evidence against the possibility of factions being a positive feature of party life the experience with the Matgamna sect must be heavily discounted.

The leadership of IS appears to have been badly burnt by their experience with Matgamna and from this point on limits were set on the formation of factions. This was contrary to both the previous practice of the revolutionary movement, the practice of IS itself and the declared principles of the leadership. On this see Towards A Revolutionary Party in which Duncan Hallas declared that:

“Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those amongst whom they work.”

Sadly these words would be forgotten by all concerned between 1971 and 1975 at which point the leadership itself split into warring tendencies. In the years between the leadership of IS operated a liberal regime but the rule that factions could only function during the pre-Conference period was rigidly enforced as was demonstrated in the case of the Left Faction, forerunners of today’s Workers Power and Permanent Revolution grouplets, which had to dissolve itself after Conference only to reform exactly one year later. One might argue that as the comrades concerned continued to discuss amongst themselves and clearly had a commonality of ideas that their faction never really dissolved. It follows then that the rule forbidding factions outside the pre-Conference period was clearly a dead letter and unenforceable as such. And to be fair to the LF comrades they did obey the rules of IS.

Other factions within IS were not as honest as the LF as can be seen in the example of the Right Opposition (they only described themselves as the Revolutionary Opposition in a document produced after the expulsion of their leaders). Like many others in the IS of the early 1970s this grouping was entranced by the writings of Trotsky, many then appearing in English for the first time, and believed that they were original and fresh thinkers. As such they were happy to set out their wares in long and frequent contributions to the Internal Bulletins then produced on a monthly basis. Obviously operating as a more or less coherent group it was also well known that they met and took political counsel from a non-member of the group – an obvious breach of discipline. Worse, branches containing supporters of the Right Opposition became little more than talking shops and failed to intervene in struggles or recruit. Clearly this was exactly the kind of faction, declared or not being beside the point, that no leadership can tolerate and their leading elements were rightly expelled. As a sequel to this episode the erstwhile Right Opposition immediately disintegrated into three distinct tendencies with almost nothing in common, a tale told by John Sullivan in his essay on The Discussion Group

What needs to be pointed out about both of the tendencies mentioned above is that they were treated with kid gloves by the leadership. In the case of the RO they were granted the right to publish a long series of tedious documents in the internal bulletins and members of the leadership devoted many pages to refuting their crap. If anything the LF were treated even better with their leading spokesmen contributing at least one article to the ISJ. Such leniency was, without any doubt, the correct course to follow given that many of the concerns expressed by the LF and RO were to some degree of concern to wider sections of IS. For example it is clear from reading the IBs of the period and talking with comrades then active that many comrades, otherwise unsympathetic to either the LF or RO, were sympathetic to the idea of IS developing a fully fledged programme based on the idea of transitional demands. Something that IS, as a whole, did commit to but never completed with the result that this is still an open question in the IS Tradition today. See for example Alex Callinicos in his The Politics of Austerity.

Between 1968 and 1975 IS had operated on the basis of a set of perspectives and a primary orientation towards the shop stewards movement that had been developed in the earlier period and was further elaborated as events demanded. The entire organisation was united behind these politics, with the exception of the Matgamna sect and later the RO, which meant that when the established leadership within its own ranks developed serious differences a major crisis erupted. Details of the political nature of that dispute need not concern us here, comrades who wish for more information are urged to read Ian Birchall’s recent biography of Tony Cliff and Jim Higgins’ little book More Years for the Locust, what is of importance is how the dispute was handled within the group.

What is most striking is that the dispute, initially confined to the Executive Committee, found no reflection in the then regular Internal Bulletins and that even active London based comrades often knew nothing of the dispute. When Duncan Hallas saw fit to initiate an opposition to the emerging majority around Tony Cliff it came as a shock to most of the organisation. Or rather it would have done had not Hallas already switched sides in the dispute only to emerge as the major polemicist for the majority against the newly formed IS Opposition. Ordered, as the constitution of the group dictated, to disband after the 1975 IS Conference the ISO refused and found its leading figures expelled in short order. A bitter factional struggle had turned into a lack of tolerance that cost the group a section of its leadership, a number of intellectuals and a layer of established trades unionists. The damage was deep and severe.

The IS Opposition was the last substantial faction within IS, although the following year saw the appearance of Fred, the Faction for Revolutionary Democracy which echoed the views of the ISO,  albeit internal debate remained healthy, through the medium of the Internal Bulletin, for some years. But even this would die down after Steve Jefferys left the party at roughly the same time as various elements nostalgic for a then inappropriate rank and fileism. For those interested in sectarian exotica it was at this time that the Revolutionary Democratic Group appeared, billing itself as an external faction of the SWP despite having next to nothing in common with the IS Tradition. Sad to say though its bulletins were widely distributed at Marxism and other party events they were sometimes the only way, this was before the internet, comrades had of learning of some developments in the organisation.

What can be observed from the above narrative is not the simply linear development of a small Marxist propaganda group and its entry into crisis when its leadership fell out. Rather we need to understand that the development and degeneration of IS involved a shifting series of relationships within the working classes. In the first instance we can observe the development of a body of theory by a small group of revolutionaries who would become the leadership of IS throughout the glory years of 1968-1975. But at all times this developing group was informed by its relationship to the class as a whole as mediated by the growing organisation itself. We can also identify a growing cadre seeking to relate to the most advanced sections of the class and, in a functional sense, to the theory that informed their activity as embodied in the organisations leadership.

The development of factional and tendency strains within a revolutionary organisation cannot but reflect the tensions between various layers within the class and the efforts of revolutionaries to relate to them. This is more easily observable and truer of mass based organisations than it is of small propaganda groups with a limited ability to undertake direct agitational work. For example it is easy to observe the growth of a bureaucratic syndicalist current in the Russian Workers’ State as reflected in the misnamed Workers Opposition of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik). And again in the small revolutionary movement in Britain it is clear that the tiny Socialist Labour Party, for which see Ray Challinor’s The Origin of British Bolshevism, reflected the revolutionary syndicalist mood of the shop stewards in Glasgow and Sheffield immediately after the First Imperialist World War.

Similar tensions also had and continue to have an echo in IS and the SWP. It is the task of the leadership to ensure that such tensions do not disrupt the revolutionary organisation enabling positive developments to be generalized while limiting the influence of negative developments. This will normally be done through the process of education and polemic but the apparatus of the group will also be used by any leadership to nurture this development. Or so one might hope, but Marxist wisdom is not and cannot be confined to even the most far-sighted Central Committee and the possibility arises that comrades will have insights and arguments that the CC cannot recognise. Or comrades will simply disagree with the CC position. In such circumstances, reflecting very often the influence of the different experiences of the comrades, the question arises as to how the group as a whole can reach agreement on the course of action to be followed by the entire group.

It is at this point that a healthy party culture and democratic forms become vital for the development of the group. For example if the revolutionary organisation has a number of comrades in senior trades union positions, who seem under pressure from their cohorts to sell a bad deal to the union members, it is vital that these comrades are supervised and disciplined by party fractions in the relevant unions and by their local party branch. In this scenario it is the task of the leading committees of the party, the NC and CC, to ensure that the fraction and branch do in fact carry out their tasks of supervision and discipline. We have seen, within the last few years, to our cost what happens when these duties of supervision and discipline cannot function due to the disbandment of the relevant party organisations. To its credit the current leadership has acted to ensure that such disasters cannot be repeated.

The branches and fractions can however only act to supervise and discipline members who belong to them and are not able to deal with groups or layers of comrades, who being subject to various pressures, seek to express more or less common opinions on various aspects of the group’s activity. In fact should such a tendency develop then the current structures of the party and the comrades holding responsible positions in those structures, (we are thinking here of the branch, district and fraction committees along with the NC and CC) cannot but regard any tendency holding views that differ from theirs as an obstacle to the functioning of the group.

Such an attitude on the part of a leadership is entirely understandable because the law of factions is that they are an obstacle to the carrying through of an agreed upon political line. And yet, from time to time, they are the only way the membership or a part of the leadership has of correcting a political line that is wrong or in part wrong. Or at least is perceived by a section of the party as being wrong. We may take an example from the history of the Bolsheviks to illustrate this. In our first case the Left Communist faction, associated with comrades such as Bukharin, opposed the line put forward by Lenin going to so far as to accuse him of betraying the word revolution (!) operated publicly, they even published a daily paper of their own, and at the same time implemented the line they fought to change. The point here is that both sides in the debate remained loyal to the party programme and their understanding of Democratic Centralism.

The episode related above illustrates that even at the very point of crisis the Bolsheviks were a democratic party willing to make concessions to dissident tendencies within their ranks. There was moreover no question as to the right of such dissidents to organise themselves as a formal faction and fight to change the line of the party as a whole. Even if such an internal party struggle inhibited the functioning of the party in the midst of a crisis situation. Yet the disruption to the party was minimized by the very existence of the Left Communist faction precisely because it enabled the debate in the party’s ranks to be carried out in the appropriate channels and thereby minimized disruption.

In all of the episodes related above, whether they be episodes from the history of IS/SWP or from the history of Bolshevism, it is clear that the various factions, including that of the leadership, have to a greater or lesser degree reflected pressures and influences arising from different sections of the working class or other classes. Politics then must be put in command and the membership of the party must decide the organisation’s political line and have the right to correct it if that becomes necessary. Which has not been the case within the SWP in the years following the transformation of IS into the SWP. What has developed is an organisation that knows one permanent faction and denies the rights of the membership to struggle to change either that leadership or its political line.

The above can be seen all too clearly in the manner by which the organisation was led during the period when John Rees was a leading member. At this point I should note that the personality of Rees is of no importance as the entire leadership followed and argued for a political line which I assume was authored by Rees and his closest allies. What cannot be denied is that at the time of the turn to building Respect, ludicrously described as a United Front sui generis, many comrades had serious doubts which led to them abstaining from joining or building that formation in any way. But the leadership commanded that such was the political line to be followed and not one comrade challenged them publicly although a lot of grumbling took place in pubs the length and breadth of the country. Whether or not the Respect line was wrong was it not a disgrace that not one comrade felt able to challenge the leadership on it?

Was it any surprise then that when the party changed course, due to the entirely predictable betrayal of its erstwhile ally George Galloway, that not only were a small number of comrades lost to the sub-reformism of Respect (Galloway) but a line that had obviously failed was continued in the form of the Left Alternative. And worse, was it a surprise that differences within the leadership remained opaque, concealed from the membership to the point that it took some considerable time before the ranks of the party were aware that the Rees minority had considerable differences with the majority of the CC. Although even when the Rees minority briefly surfaced as a formally constituted faction – there is no question they had functioned as such for much longer – there was little on the face of it to differentiate their politics from that of the CC majority.

Many comrades have argued that Rees stood for Rees and nothing else. This is a nonsense that demonizes the man and prevents a proper discussion of the political issues at stake. And the political issues are not to be confined to the group’s political line but also concern organizational questions too including the question of internal democracy. For revolutionists questions of organisation are of the utmost political importance whether it be when to form workers councils or internal democracy within the revolutionary party. Which is why the Democracy Commission was such a damp squib as it began a discussion and just as swiftly ended it before any answers had been arrived at and separated question of democracy and politics in a typically Zinovievite manner. A manner John Rees might have been proud of in fact.

So inconclusive was the Democracy Commission and so little did it change as to the groups internal functioning that the resignation of a faction around Chris Bambery was a shock only in the sense that it had not already happened. What disappointed many comrades was that he had been allowed to pursue his factional activities under cover of his responsibility as a member of the CC for the party in Scotland. And this despite a leadership that had placed a renewed stress on the need for active functioning branches and was arguing for the need for systematic cadre education in order to raise the cultural level of the party.

But an abstract knowledge of Marxism and labour history will not remedy the problems the party faces. Though it will help equip comrades for the struggle and must be encouraged. It cannot remedy our problems because many of them relate to the decline in class consciousness throughout far wider layers of the working class as a result of the Downturn. In this context we can note that when the SRG was formed in 1950 many workers had illusions that the Labour Party would bring about socialism, the unions had emerged from the war with new millions of members and the Stalinist party too counted its supporters in the tens of thousands. There was then a fierce contest within the working class for the allegiance of both its vanguard and the class as a whole. The result was a class that in its mass had achieved a considerable consciousness of itself as a class even if it lacked the awareness of the measures that needed to be taken to move towards socialism. Similarly during the upturn of the early 1970s our comrades had to compete in a field in which the Labour Left, the declining but still powerful CPGB and vaguer syndicalist ideas were far more influential than the ideas of revolutionary socialism. Class consciousness in the class as a whole and particularly within its advanced sections was in comparison to today at an historical high. All of this had a profound influence on both the theories produced by SRG/IS and on the democratic forms the organisation adopted.

The reverse is also true with regard to the Downturn and its effects on the SWP. Chris Harman initiated a discussion in the ISJ, in his essay Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, as to the crisis of the revolutionary left in Europe. Although he did not suggest the SWP was unaffected he implicitly contrasted the collapse of many groups to the relative success of the SWP in maintaining both its toehold in the working class and its membership base. He was correct and prescient enough to identify a trend nearer its beginning than its end and that crisis was deepened by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, wrongly identified by so many as forms of socialism, and the neo-liberal offensive. What he did not, could not, identify was the effects an enforced isolation from the working class would have on the SWP itself. And indeed had the group been able to maintain to a greater degree its contacts with the class given the low level of struggle it is by no means impossible that it would not have been more susceptible to that crisis that destroyed so many other once promising groups. On the reverse side of the coin I suspect that a healthier party regime would have made it easier to hold the line without relapsing into sectism.

This writer is of the opinion that the party culture and forms of internal democracy within IS from 1971 to 1976 were generally of a positive nature. There were though a number of problems that are relevant to today. There can be no doubt that in general the internal culture of IS was healthy but there was a political distance between the leadership and most of the membership that deepened after 1971. This was expressed in a tendency on the part of the leadership towards impatience with the membership, with the result that rather than argue for a change in tactical orientation by the group, they fell into the trap of instructing the members to make whatever turn it was that was felt to be needed at the time. Comrades, particularly those who formed themselves into factions, who displayed reluctance to make any given turn became barriers to be removed. A feature of party life that many would argue is still firmly in place today.

In part the distance, in terms of decision making, that opened up between the leadership of professional revolutionaries at the centre and the membership spread throughout the country was a result of structures that only inadequately articulated the decision making process within the group. This was often expressed in the failure of the National Committee to be a real decision making body between the conferences of the group. It is striking that even today similar concerns are expressed with regard to the relationship between the NC and the CC. It is my contention that this arises as both are elected directly by the conference but the larger body has no right of supervision over the smaller CC which therefore is able to monopolise political direction of the party.

Another negative feature of party life is the total lack of a space in which criticisms of the political line of the organisation can be raised internally. Rather than being able to articulate their views in a regularly published Internal Bulletin comrades are often reduced to grumbling in corners after branch meetings with the result that they become seen as conservative elements or worse. Indeed the raising of questions at branch meetings is often frowned on by a section of the comrades who would appear to see any kind of questioning as disloyalty to the organisation and its politics. This attitude is as much a result of the training comrades have received and can be painlessly changed for the better.

What then needs to be done to make our party more democratic in order that it can more sensitively respond to an ever changing class struggle and make it more attractive to a rising generation repelled by mainstream politics parties, especially those of the left, which are not democratically controlled by their members? Most importantly we need to discuss the nature of the problems that many comrades are raising and in this way change the internal culture of the party into one that is tolerant and inclusive of those who question. There has never been a better time for such an enterprise given that the spirit of democracy has swept the globe in 2011 and not far beneath the surface has been the spectre of workers democracy waiting only to be made explicit and here in Britain that is exactly the process that N30 began. It is our task to seek to become of the developing forces that seek to progress beyond bourgeois society and we are best able to do so if we too possess an organisation that is democratically centralized and eschews commandism.

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