Socialist Workers Party veteran John Molyneux has responded to the resignation of former Central Committee member Chris Bambery and the statement by 38 Scottish ex-members on why they are leaving the SWP.
Although sneaked in at the end of a fairly lengthy blog post, this is by far the most politically important paragraph:
'And far from it [Bambery and 38 others resigning] being a symptom of the SWP’s decline it is rather unfinished business from the struggle against Rees/German/Bambery regime which in my opinion was the pre-condition of the party’s recovery from the severe crisis into which we were plunged by the splitting and abandonment of local branch organisation in the late nineties and early noughties.'
Lindsey German and John Rees were leading SWP members up to January 2009, when they (and Chris Nineham) left the Central Committee. They later left the SWP altogether and were involved, as I was, in founding Counterfire last March. Molyneux is locating these fresh resignations in the context of the differences some of us previously debated inside the SWP.
Those differences fundamentally concern how revolutionary socialists relate to broader political forces, e.g. anti-cuts and anti-war movements. Molyneux argues here that a 'struggle' against a previous way of operating (embodied by a 'Rees/German/Bambery regime') was the precondition for an effective SWP. The departure of a number of former leading members from the CC in January 2009 was a turning point in this successful struggle.
When and why did things go wrong in the first place? Molyneux refers to 'the party’s recovery from the severe crisis into which we were plunged by the splitting and abandonment of local branch organisation in the late nineties and early noughties.'
According to Molyneux, it all went wrong around the turn of the century, commencing a period of "severe crisis" for the SWP, and the main turning points in recovering from this were January 2009, the departure of some members to found Counterfire in early 2010 and finally this week's resignation by Bambery and a chunk of the Scottish organisation.
Molyneux's interpretation is focused on internal organisation, without any reference to the wider political context or how the organisation sought to relate to that context. This internal focus is explicitly linked, in turn, to particular personalities.
But we need a political understanding, not Molyneux's depoliticised personality clashes and fetishism of internal organisation. It is a touch ironic, as Molyneux lambasts Bambery for a "low political level" in his resignation letter, apparently thinking that his own blog post's listing of several political developments automatically guarantees he is being "political". Yet there is no politics evident in his account of what happened in the SWP a decade ago, and what followed.
So, what did happen? What exactly was this "severe crisis"? Three important things happened.
Firstly, the SWP oriented itself on the emergent anti-capitalist movement heralded by the landmark Seattle demonstrations at the end of 1999. It played a vital role in co-ordinating the UK mobilisations to a series of major anti-capitalist demonstrations, including those in Genoa in July 2001. This ensured the revolutionary left connected with other radical currents and the politicisation of a layer of mainly young people rejecting neoliberalism and looking for alternatives.
The party played an important role in the international Social Forums, including the Florence European Social Forum of November 2002 (which became the springboard for a massive global day of anti-war demonstrations on 15 February 2003) and the London ESF in October 2004.
Was this a "severe crisis"?
Secondly, the SWP extended its activity to the electoral sphere for the first time in generations, an opportunity opened up by disillusionment with a right-wing 'New Labour' government. This created the possibility of new forms of co-operation and the SWP committed first to the Socialist Alliance and later to Respect. This latter saw the election of an MP, George Galloway, in May 2005 followed by a batch of councillors a year later.
Whatever went wrong in the long term, the successes in building Respect marked a breakthrough in left-of-Labour electoral politics, to which the SWP was central. It extended the party's work into new political territory.
Was this a "severe crisis"?
Thirdly, and ultimately most importantly, the SWP played a dynamic role in initiating and building Stop the War as a nationwide coalition opposing the fresh drive to imperialist war and occupation which immediately followed the 11 September 2001 attacks. Stop the War was, and is, a genuine united front, a coalition involving revolutionaries but also a wide range of people from reformist backgrounds.
The anti-war movement's achievements are many, including organising some of the largest demonstrations in this country's history, reaching a peak on 15 February 2003, with 2 million on the streets of London and a global day of mass protests initiated at the previous November's ESF in Florence. The movement also laid the foundations for the SWP working with others in launching Respect at the start of 2004.
Was this a "severe crisis"?
To summarise the above: what characterised the SWP in those years was an outward-looking approach with a commitment to building broader coalitions and movements in response to the dominant issues and challenges of the age. The project of building a revolutionary party was formulated in that context.
This was a continuation of the SWP's tradition, associated above all with Tony Cliff (who died in 2000), applied to new circumstances. The overlapping crises of neoliberalism, imperialism and social democracy opened up new opportunities - expressed in the anti-capitalist mobilisations, the anti-war movement and new electoral formations (Socialist Alliance/Respect; SSP in Scotland).
It was possible for SWP members to build new alliances and extend the scope of their activity - into elections, social forums, mass demonstrations, international mobilisations, etc.
This inevitably meant a process of re-thinking many aspects of party organisation. All the above provides the context for what Molyneux mis-represents as 'the splitting and abandonment of local branch organisation'. What is true is that SWP leaders - and many grassroots activists - recognised the need for moving away from treating a routine of weekly branch meetings and Saturday sales of Socialist Worker as sacrosanct.
"How do we build revolutionary organisation as a pole within broader movements?" became the important question. And rightly so. Mistakes were certainly made in answering that question in practice. But it was the correct question to ask and the correct orientation to have on larger political events.
It is a project ('building the party in an age of mass movements', as it was once put) we undertook in the context of playing an influential role in confronting the crises of neoliberalism, imperialism and social democracy.
What has happened recently in the SWP is a growing abandonment of the outward-looking united front approach. This has caused tensions and conflicts, first expressed on the Central Committee and then finding wider expression during the period ahead of last February's split by around 60 members, most of whom went on to launch Counterfire.
The retreat from a united front approach has grown still worse since that split, and now we see further resignations from people dedicated to answering that question "How do we build revolutionary organisation as a pole within broader movements?"
Why have the tensions deepened? Precisely because the need for revolutionaries, allying with a range of other people and groups, to adopt a mass coalition-building response to the economic crisis has become more acute. The scale of the government's cuts programmes demands mass resistance. We need to build serious anti-cuts campaigns - broad, united, national.
It isn't the time for fetishising a routine of weekly branch meetings and paper sales. It is a time for building mass resistance, and developing organisational forms to help that happen, as the first priority. In that context we need to pay close attention to how revolutionaries build their own independent political organisation, as a strong Marxist pole within broad-based movements.
Right to Work has failed to develop as a credible co-ordinating and campaigning body with broad appeal beyond the SWP. This reflects the retreat, by most of the SWP's leadership, from the sort of approaches which increased the party's scope and influence during the last decade. It is failing to apply the united front approach to the overwhelmingly important priority of our times. The party will invitably become more isolated, inward-looking and sectarian as a consequence.
Counterfire activists have played a central role in launching and developing Coalition of Resistance, which shows far greater promise. This was exemplified by last November's founding conference of over 1000 people and again on 26 March, with thousands of marchers carrying COR placards and 25,000 copies of a special free paper being distributed on the demonstration.
COR's role on 26 March was just one step in building a national coalition politically shaped by the left, and there's a long way to go, but it reflected a commitment to building the broad movement that is sadly lacking in the SWP today.
Those of us in Counterfire are committed to both building the movements and creating a revolutionary Marxist pole which attracts many of the best activists. It is obvious Chris Bambery and the Scottish comrades have the same commitment. I, for one, wish them well.