Latest irresponsible split from SWP

The defection of Chris Bambery and a section of the Scottish membership highlights systemic failings. Peter Manson reports

The resignation of Socialist Workers Party central committee member Chris Bambery on April 10 was rapidly followed by the departure of at least 38 comrades in Scotland two days later. These defectors are expected to formally announce their adherence to the Counterfire grouping of John Rees and Lindsey German sooner rather than later.

It is no coincidence that comrade Bambery's resignation letter was first posted on Alex Snowdon's Luna 17 blog on April 11[1] - comrade Snowdon is a member of Counterfire. Within an hour or so it also appeared on the sites of other leftwing bloggers. Similarly, the statement of comrade Bambery's 38 supporters in Scotland was first made public on the Counterfire website.[2]

Their letter to "CC and party members" was introduced by Counterfire in this way: "A new socialist organisation is being formed in Scotland which is committed to building the movement against the cuts, solidarity with the Arab revolutions and the Stop the War Coalition." Counterfire has consistently claimed that the SWP has been insufficiently enthusiastic about the anti-cuts movement and has at best gone cool on the STWC (which was set up originally on the initiative of the SWP, but is now led by comrades Rees and German). And Counterfire has been particularly keen on the "Arab revolutions".

Its website introduction concludes: "Counterfire sends its greetings to the new group, which is committed, as we are, to building the widest possible movements of resistance and to building an organisation of Marxists." So Counterfire clearly knew an awful lot about a group founded just an hour or so earlier.

In truth, it came as something of a surprise when comrade Bambery - closely associated with the former Rees SWP leadership - did not follow the example of Lindsey German and Chris Nineham in stepping down from the CC when comrade Rees was dumped at the end of 2007. Comrade Bambery not only remained an SWP member after the leadership organised a 'rebellion' of Socialist Worker journalists to have him removed as editor in 2009, but he stuck it out on the CC. It was the same when Rees, German and Nineham led a walkout from the SWP of around 60 people in February 2010. Comrade Bambery stayed put, appearing to have switched sides.

But now he talks about the "relentless factionalism" which was "driven by the leading group on the CC" and has afflicted the SWP "for four years" - in other words, since the CC majority decided to place the entire blame for the Respect debacle on comrade Rees. Admittedly, Rees was the chief architect of this overtly popular-frontist episode, but the entire CC had gone along with it (uncritically, it seems).

So, after four years of biting his tongue, comrade Bambery has now begun to echo Counterfire's criticisms of the leadership. But the reasons he gives for his resignation seem insubstantial, to say the least.

In his letter addressed to SWP national secretary Charlie Kimber he explains that, despite his "32 years membership" - 17 as national secretary and five as Socialist Worker editor - he felt he had no alternative but to throw in the towel. Why? Because at the April 8 special CC meeting former national secretary and chief hit man Martin Smith accused him of having played a "filthy" and "disgraceful" role in the party. He specified comrade Bambery's particularly "foul role in Scotland", for which he had had CC responsibility since 1988 until it was removed from him earlier this year. According to the resignation letter, comrade Smith said that despite the CC's best efforts to "integrate" him, comrade Bambery had "spent the last year and a half organising against the CC". Such allegations were repeated by other CC members.

For comrade Bambery these accusations, mixed with a couple of minor insults, amount to "a major factional attack", leaving him no alternative but to call it a day. Not very convincing.

He then regurgitates the Rees-German line that the leadership's attitude had "damaged our united front work in all the campaigns - Right to Work most obviously … Stop the War is now treated with derision by leading CC members". In recent weeks there has been "no lead or drive from the CC in turning the party towards building the growing anti-cuts movement". What is more, unspecified "internal arguments" have held back Right to Work "from its inception" and "brought it near to derailment". Finally, "the stress on party-building has increasingly meant 'intervening' from the outside rather than recruiting whilst working alongside those who are building the movement".

Unlike under the leadership of John Rees then, the SWP no longer takes so-called 'united front' work seriously and instead abuses the broad alliances it sets up simply to recruit to itself - that is the Rees-Bambery accusation. Of course, seasoned SWP-watchers have noticed no change at all from the days of the ancien régime either in the organisation's promotion of broad, popular-front-type alliances or in its cynical use of them as recruiting channels.

Among the 38 comrades in Scotland signing the joint resignation letter are the Glasgow and East Coast SWP organisers and six members of the Scottish steering committee. Two of them, Suki Sangha and James Foley, were also members of the SWP national committee and comrade Foley is actually number five on George Galloway's Coalition Against Cuts list for the May 5 election to the Scottish parliament - one of only two SWP comrades nominated for the eight-person slate.

The 38 simply repeat comrade Bambery's vague allegations: "factionalism persists at the very centre of the organisation"; there has been a "retreat from systematic united front work"; the SWP did not mobilise efficiently for the March 26 TUC demo; Right to Work has been undermined; etc.

Headteacher

For its part, the CC responds in its by now accustomed way: like a tolerant headteacher who has bent over backwards to make allowances for their recalcitrant charges despite the latter's totally unreasonable behaviour. The reply was published in the internal Party Notes and should remain accessible on the SWP website until it is replaced by next week's edition.[3]

The CC states that comrade Bambery's resignation is "very disappointing". However, "The CC has for some time had worries about aspects of Chris's work." For example, "There was criticism of his role in not effectively helping to build a broad Right to Work." Even more 'worrying' for the CC, though, is what comrade Bambery had been up to north of the border: "As Chris's letter states, the CC asked him to step aside from responsibility for our work in Scotland, and after the evidence that has now emerged of organised opposition to the party in Scotland it is obvious we were right."

But what, precisely had he been up to? The leadership explains: "The argument at the CC that Chris refers to involved him spreading information about internal CC discussions to those outside the CC. Several of us believed he was trying to stir up division in the party - a view which subsequent events confirmed."

This is the nub of the matter. Comrade Bambery had clearly been elaborating to comrades in Scotland (and, presumably, elsewhere) what the differences on the CC were - and no doubt explaining why he was right and the majority were wrong. Why is this unacceptable? It is not a question of 'stirring up' divisions, surely: rather of reporting existing ones. And surely it is better to have such divisions out in the open in order to resolve them?

In fact just over a year ago the SWP seemed to be recognising that such secrecy was not a good idea. It had set up a 'democracy commission' following complaints of a lack of explanation and openness in the wake of comrade Rees's removal from the leadership, and the commission's report to the January 2010 SWP conference contained the following remark: "For some time now the custom and practice has been for all differences within the CC to be hidden from the wider membership (except for close personal confidants), with all CC members presenting an image of more or less total unity until the last possible moment."

The democracy commission therefore recommended: "... the responsible discussion of serious political differences when they arise would help educate comrades and train them in thinking for themselves."[4] The DC recommendations were overwhelmingly accepted and, I assume, all CC members voted for them.

If they were to implement what they seemed to agree to by their votes, they would be doing no more than their founder and guru, Tony Cliff, had laid out - in his early days, that is, before he became the main driving force in saddling the International Socialists/SWP with its current variant of bureaucratic centralism. Back in 1960 he wrote:

"… the internal regime in the revolutionary party must be subordinated to the relation between the party and the class ... The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers - policies which are then brought 'unanimously' ready-made to the class. Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party's issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence.

"… This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership."[5]

It goes without saying that the SWP practice is precisely the opposite. For instance, at the same time as appearing to move in the direction of the open reporting of differences on the leadership, the DC made the following comment: "If for example, the organisation decides, as it has done, to oppose the slogan 'British jobs for British workers', it is not then permissible for any member, especially a leading member, to support this slogan in a … public forum."

I commented at the time that the example was deliberately chosen for its undesirability - no genuine socialist would ever say such a thing, obviously.[6] But, again, how can this gagging order - the banning of public expression of differences - be reconciled with Cliff's advice that "all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day". Does the fact that "the organisation decides" on a policy mean it ought to be set in stone? What if the policy turns out to be incorrect?

Culture

Returning to the leadership's response to comrade Bambery, the CC states: "We do not think that the party is riven by factionalism, nor does it have a culture where it is impossible to raise political disagreement." It is insufficient merely to assert this. After all, the democracy commission report came to the opposite conclusion.

The report stated: "The main form of democratic difficulty we have experienced has been reluctance, at all levels of the party, of comrades with sincerely held doubts and/or differences to speak up. One reason for this has been the tendency to put down dissenters so severely and comprehensively as to deter any repetition or imitation." It further stated: "Nor should there be a fear as - with reason - there has been in the past, of exclusion, isolation or ostracism for the expression of dissident views."

Has the SWP now discarded these bureaucratic, anti-democratic practices? I very much doubt it. Part and parcel of them has been the attempt to put down dissent by calling on those who question the CC's wisdom to stop wasting time and get active. This was epitomised by one SWP comrade's comment on the Socialist Unity site's Bambery thread: "OK, this is all very exciting, but there are cuts to fight, so will you people please get back to fucking work? Most of us in the SWP actually have things to attend to and not much time to waste on gossip. You people remind me of the House of Lords."[7]

The internal regime notwithstanding, the CC does make some correct criticisms of comrade Bambery in the following passage:

"If Chris believed there were fundamental problems around Right to Work and other issues, his responsibility … was to raise these questions and encourage other comrades to do the same.

"As our leading comrade in RTW, as a central committee member and as a member of the party's finance committee, Chris had the opportunity to register political disagreement about all the issues he raises in his resignation letter. In the past year he never has.

"Instead he has written key documents for the party's perspectives, introduced sessions at conference and headed up our work in a key united front - without any open political disagreements. Indeed, he said he had no differences with the perspectives document presented to Sunday's party council - on the day he resigned. He could have attended the council and argued at it. Surely the Tony Cliff who Chris mentions would have done so! But Chris chose not to attend.

"In our tradition, if you disagree, you try to win your position in the party and seek to persuade others of your case."

The final sentence is, of course, laughable - especially in view of the democracy commission's observations. However, that is how things ought to be and it is positive that the CC, however hypocritically, has felt obliged to state this. There is now just the little matter of making it a reality.

The CC has called an emergency national committee meeting for April 16 to discuss the latest crisis. As well as the situation in Scotland, it will also no doubt be considering what to do about Right to Work, whose national secretary is … Chris Bambery. Will the CC be prepared to see RTW go the same way as Stop the War? Or will it risk alienating its allies by ensuring he is replaced by an SWP loyalist? RTW is, after all, more clearly an SWP front than STWC ever was.

Readers could keep an eye on comrade Bambery's blog on the RTW website - as I write, the last entry was made on April 6.[8] However, I would reckon that the SWP apparatus has already closed this line of communication. Clearly, the SWP leadership regards comrade Bambery's defection as a huge embarrassment. Doubtless that is why there is no mention, no hint of it in the latest edition of Socialist Worker.

For our part we do not welcome or celebrate such irresponsible splits. The left has a terrible reputation for splitting almost as a matter of routine over what are essentially secondary issues. Comrade Bambery should have fought inside the SWP and raised political criticisms. That might have got him expelled, but better to have stayed and fought than to have simply walked away.

However, one thing is for sure: until the bureaucratic-centralist regimes are broken apart - and not only in the sects, but the trade unions and the Labour Party too - the working class can make no serious, no lasting progress.

peter.manson@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. http://luna17activist.blogspot.com.

2. www.counterfire.org/index.php/news/news/11886-new-socialist-organisation-formed-in-scotland.

3. Party Notes April 11: www.swp.org.uk/party-notes.

4. SWP democracy commission report Pre-conference Bulletin October 2009.

5. T Cliff Trotsky on substitutionism 1960: www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1960/xx/trotsub.htm. Thanks to the comrade writing on the Socialist Unity blog for reproducing this (www.socialistunity.com/?p=7983).

6. 'Triumvirate's reorientation faces Left Platform rebellion' Weekly Worker October 29 2009.

7. www.socialistunity.com/?p=7983.

8. http://righttowork.org.uk/category/blog.