A note on factions

Issue section: 

Alex Callinicos ("Is Leninism finished?" SR, February 2013) claims that during the recent internal debate in the SWP some comrades were "arguing for...a different model involving a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions (currently factions are only allowed in the discussion period leading up to the annual party conference)."

Now I can speak only for myself here; maybe some comrades did wish this, though I don't recall such a demand being made in any document of the opposition faction.

Various contributors to the debate have raised the question of factional rights in the Bolshevik party and the early Comintern (see for example http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/party-democracy-in-lenins-co...) As a historian I find such information fascinating. As an SWP member I am relatively indifferent. Indeed, I think dwelling on the point falls precisely into the error of trying to define a doctrine of "Leninism".

Any position on factional rights must be based on the real experience of our own movement. Nobody would defend any clause in the SWP constitution solely on the basis that "this is what the Bolsheviks did", rather than on arguments about what is reasonable and what has worked in practice.

I am one of the very few people still in the SWP who belonged to a permanent faction (the "Democratic Centralist" faction) in the days when the International Socialists (IS, the SWP's predecessor) allowed such things. It was not a positive experience and not one I should wish to repeat.

My faction was in fact relatively short-lived. But a much more serious situation arose in the heady days following 1968. A small group called Workers' Fight had negotiated unity with the IS (the negotiations had been overhasty in the frenetic atmosphere of 1968). But Workers' Fight (forerunner of today's Alliance for Workers' Liberty, but then with orthodox Trotskyist politics) was never a genuine faction; it remained an organisation within an organisation, with its own membership subscriptions, probationary membership and its own internal discipline.

The "democratic centralist" IS constitution adopted in 1968 rather generously allowed factional rights - Workers' Fight got two members on the forty-person National Committee, the constitutionally supreme body of the organisation. As the late Peter Sedgwick presciently pointed out, there was a problem - what happened if one of the factional representatives changed his or her mind? Permanent factional representatives were there to represent a pre existing position, and could not allow themselves to be swayed by the ebb and flow of debate.

During the next couple of years there were two sharp internal disputes in IS - one on whether we should call for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland in 1969, and one on whether we should oppose British entry to the Common Market (the forerunner of the European Union) or abstain. (There is a full account of this period in my biography of Tony Cliff, chapters 7 and 8). The Workers' Fight group took a minority position on both these questions. As it happens, so did I. But I could not ally with Workers' Fight on these issues, because they were using these issues as part of their permanent war against the existing leadership, whereas I was interested in the questions for their own sake.

In any healthy organisation debates will arise from time to time and majorities and minorities will form. But almost certainly as the issues change, following the development of circumstances in the world around us, so too will the internal line-ups. I may be shoulder to shoulder with comrade X on one debate, and fiercely opposed to her on a different debate six months later.

I also recall discussing with comrades from the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, the Fourth International group in France, in the 1970s and 1980s. It was common practice for factions to be completely integrated into the routine of the organisation. Comrades would go to their branch/cell meeting every Thursday evening - and to their faction meeting every Tuesday. In the long run this inevitably became burdensome (on top of all the other activity required) and left comrades with divided loyalties.

My own feeling is that factions are a last resort. They are not a necessary vehicle for the debate and argument which will go on, locally and nationally, all year round in any healthy organisation. In the years 1979 to 1982 we had extended and heated debates about the "downturn" and Women's Voice, but no formal factions were formed.

Obviously the right to form a faction must be guaranteed by the party constitution. If an emergency arises in which there is no other means of forcing the organisation to confront serious threats or dangers, then comrades must have the right to set up a faction, and hopefully set in train a process which will bring an end to the emergency. In such a situation a faction could help to avert a split or a serious loss of members. A permanent faction, however, always has the logic of an organisation within an organisation.