Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Factionalism and "leadership"

Chris Bambery, a long-term leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (a large UK far-left group) has resigned with a parting shot that claims that "relentless factionalism in the organisation, driven by the leading group on the CC [Central Committee], shows no sign of ceasing and is doing enormous damage to the party . It is a cancer eating away at its heart."

The official response from the SWP claims that Bambery was "spreading information about internal CC discussions to those outside the CC".

It's an interesting organisation where this is considered a crime! Yet it's pretty normal in far-left organisations from a Communist or Trotskyist background. The leadership are expected to be able to discuss in private so they can talk about the membership candidly. That is, behind the backs of the people who they are supposed to represent, er, I mean lead.

Transparency and accountability exist in form but not in content when this becomes a norm of the organisation. As I've been arguing for some time about these supposedly "Leninist" far-left groups, the CC or equivalent acts as a permanent, secret faction that monopolises the leadership bodies and uses the party structure to implement it’s own line on the membership from above.

Even nominally democratic elections cannot shake such a clique, because to create a coherent alternative to the existing leadership, the culture of discussion in the party must allow alternative currents of thought to develop their ideas. Instead, they are usually treated as a threat to be shouted down immediately in the “democratic” discussion of party life.

I don’t know if this is how Chris Bambery and his supporters now sees the “factionalism” he talks about, but I hope people start to question this method of “leadership building” that relegates the mass of the organisation to followers and footsoldiers.

This undemocratic methodology has paralysed the far left in the face of new developments. It is part of the sectarian mindset according to which groups set up controlled front organisations instead of uniting with other campaigners, or distribute party propaganda instead of campaign material. It has also paralysed the ability of the membership to have intelligent discussion, because not only must you speak the party line, you also can only think the party line (or leave) in this environment.

The verticalist leadership-building methods of so many far left “Leninist” groups have turned them into a phenomenon that practically requires cult de-programming. It’s sad. We can do better than that in the fight for a better world. Most people join the far left because they want a better world: in many cases, we need better organisations as a first step!


  1. Bizarre parting shot nonetheless. I'm neutral on this one given Banbery's history of factionalism in Scotland vis a vis the SSP.
    The main point is the tragedy of it all...even though groups like the SWP sentence themselves to this sort of falling out.
    While I think the 'traditional' approach of Leninist groups is formally often quite democratic --such as in the continuity of James P. Cannon -- openess has not always been so much embraced as it could be. Even Cannon argued that while all meetings were open to the membership it is considerate to make sure that people can talk frankly without being eavesdropped.
    So there has to be form as well as function. Formal as well as real leadership -- not a make believe, artificial one.
    But there has to be leadership -- a leadership whose requisites are understood by all otherwise you cannot have confidence in the day to day functioning of the party. And for that confidence to prevail, any leadership needs to be accountable and recallable.
    Hardly SWP practice.
    Unfortunately I fear that the SWP problems have only worsened since the bad turn on the Socialist Alliance, then Respect...and Banbery's exit has to be aseen as a symptom of that.

  2. There is always some sort of leadership and sure it can be a very useful thing. The point is, it has to be transparent and accountable, and recallable as you say, Dave.

    But in a socialist or Marxist political party, ideas are very important; discussion of politics is crucial; and if one allows the leadership to control and direct how and where the discussions take place, even the most democratically structured organisation will become an appendage of the leadership group. It is a bureaucratic corruption; bureaucracy here understood to mean a group controlling information, not necessarily material corruption.

    I have written more on this (see and probably will do so again because I think if we could unlock the self-imprisoned far left in the Anglophone world, or rather give them the key, it would be a very good thing.

  3. But Ben the point about any political discussion anytime any where has to be more than talk. It has to also embrace the question of deciding to do something. To rail against allowing " the leadership to control and direct how and where the discussions take place," has to be considerate of that core fact.

    The primary question is not just the chit chat but the deciding..then... the execution. By whom? By what authority? Why put any decision into practice? How can you unless it has weight. -- a substance that ferries it into existence.

    With the British SWP in mind-- the core complication of the far left orgs is that their isolation has generated a circle mentality which has fostered a very insular and besieged attitude to party democracy.

    That is not the same question, the same issue , as leadership. per se. I think you mix up the two.

    I want a leadership that puts what is decided by democratic process into practice.

    I want more democracy because I can be confident that what is decided is acted upon. It isn;t so much about the discussions themselves but the responsibility that comes with deciding.

    The complication of regulating discussion -- as you suggest -- is allowing decisions already made to be put into practice.

    I see nothing wrong with criticising practice...but the actuality of practice (and not the indulgence of discourse for its own sake) has to rule.

  4. We may be in furious agreement here, Dave! But I find your comments a bit cryptic.

    I think the isolation of the left is a real historical phenomenon, especially the Trotskyist and independent far left in the era of Stalinism. But that was a while ago. A certain amount of the contemporary isolation of many far left groups comes from keeping the circle mentality long after there was any possible justification.

    I don't disagree about the need to put decisions into practice, but I'm not sure where that comes into this. Factionalism is not being able to have disagreements and discussions in a constructive way.

    I don't disagree that formal leadership (co-ordination, delegated responsibility to think through directions, etc) is important. But the essence of leadership is to take the initiative and inspire others. That's very hard to do if your inspiration leads you outside of the narrowly defined parameters set by the CC.

    Leadership is more than just 'a substance' that 'ferries' decisions 'into existence'. That 'substance' is largely located in organisation more broadly, not just 'leadership' bodies. Whereas real leadership can't easily be captured or restricted to a central committee.

  5. "The primary question is not just the chit chat but the deciding..then... the execution. By whom? By what authority? Why put any decision into practice?"

    I've been to many many meetings where there was no leadership, but people decided what needed to be done and who would do it, and then went off and did it.

    I've been to even more meetings where decisions have not been implemented because it was left up to leadership body to do it.

  6. I think there are a number of different issues which are conflated when socialists talk about "leadership", and I think that these discussions might be clearer if they were separated:

    - showing leadership, ie taking innitiative and inspiring people
    Everyone should be encouraged to show leadership whether they are elected to anything or not.

    - administration/responsibility for tasks
    This is obviously important. I don't think it's always necessary to elect people or form bodies to do this. Although it can be depending on the circumstances and size of the group. People might be selected for these rolls because they have shown leadership but I still think they should be task orientated.

    - bodies elected to make decisions on behalf of the members
    I think the membership should be involved in as much of the decision-making process as possible. I also think as committees that involve everyone who is involved in a certain project are also more useful than decision making bodies that just cover everything. However once groups get to a certain size these bodies can become necessary. I think a lot of the socialist groups have them when they are way too small and you get situations with 10 people in a branch and 7 of them on the exec, which is pretty silly and exclusive.

    - a body that is specifically selected to show leadership
    I don't think this should exist at all. It discourages the general membership from showing leadership and it's a bit of a popularity contest. It also fosters the concept that these people are The leadership and that their opinions etc are more important than other people's. People on the body can also fall into the mentality that they can then tell others what to do(and that is often what is meant by "leadership" in our society) In my experience it also results in a lot of grooming of new "leaders" by people on the body which is quite a different thing from an individual showing genuine leadership and winning real respect of the members.

    What I'm getting at is that we should separate the structural/organisational issues from the concept of leadership. We need organisation, but when it comes to leadership we should go back to the old idea that "we are all leaders".

  7. Ben
    A bit out of my comfort zone here but I think factionalism is destructive of discussion. It occurs partly because discussion and outcomes are subjected to assessment through particular quite inflexible ideological filters.

    It mostly occurs because it is a tool for gaining and retaining power within the overall umbrella of a group (political party, Trade Union, Municipal Council whatever)- all to often seen as a worthy goal in its own right.

    Factionalism implies never accepting that the discussion (argument) is lost. It places the position of the faction above the position of the party and validates attempts to destroy differing (but congruent) position by fair means or foul.

    To the extent that such battles remain internal they impede decision making and subsequent action. To the extent that they become public they aid the cause of political/ideological opponents.

    The possibility of wielding power is at least as attractive as the altruistic desire to make the world a better place as a motivator for becoming politically involved. So factionalism is probably inevitable in politicical parties of all types and sizes.

    Don't know anything about the internal workings of the SWP or the history of the guy making the accusation but on the strength of your piece I tend to agree with him without having the faintest idea how any group based on the contest of ideas could combat the growth of factions and their desire to win the arguments.

  8. I think your comments about factions are broadly correct Doug. Trotskyists always defended the right to form factions as a kind of defence against bureaucracy within the organisation, but you're right about the destructive side-effects and outcomes of factionalism.

    I think my point was more broadly that when an organisation is not healthy it's easy for a small clique to act as a faction behind the legal justification of being the elected leadership. Accountability and transparency and an active, engaged membership can prevent this happening but once it's in place, it's hard to remove such a faction.

    Many left critics of the UK SWP make a similar criticism of them; I'm not an expert on the factional lineup in that party, I was just borrowing into the debate to restate some issues I have with the way far left groups organise themselves generally.

    As one UK facebook friend put it, shouldn't it be a *responsibility* of leadership bodies to explain what's going on in leadership bodies?

  9. Sorry don't have time to read all the discussion here, although in defence of the SWP CC, the claim about spreading internal CC discussions was specifically linked to their concerns he was doing so in order to factionalise secretly against the leadership. That concern is certainly borne out by the simultaneous resignations of 38 other SWP members in Scotland.

    But another interesting perspective is at John Molyneux's blog

  10. Let it not be thought that I'm taking sides in the UK SWP's faction fights! I wouldn't pretend to know what half the issues are. I just hitched a ride on the discussion to make a few points of my own, more generally, to be quite honest.

    Your point about spreading internal CC discussions for his own ends is fair enough. I still hold that if bodies like the CC were fully accountable, it wouldn't be such a crime and the whole organisation would be healthier and more open.

    John Molyneaux's article includes extra perspective which is good. However his main leading criticism of Bambery (that the resignation letter had "a low level of politics") is hard to understand. He goes on to give lots of examples of how great everything is, like he's saying "don't leave now the party's just getting started!" but that in itself may be reason to stay active - it's not necessarily reason to stay in the SWP if Bambery found it impossible to collaborate anymore, which seems to be the main point of his letter.

    Going and setting up a new group is sadly typical, though. As if the UK needs another socialist organisation!


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