Regrouping Cliffites? or six-way merger?

Submitted by AWL on 14 January, 2014 - 2:23

A call to activists quitting the SWP to discuss seriously with others on the left, including AWL.

Dave Renton, one of the well-known figures in the new wave of people who have quit the SWP after its December 2013 conference (NWSQ for short), sets his aim for 2014 as "the regroupment of the best of the Cliffite diaspora, and then (with luck) contributing to that bolder, braver left of which we can be just a constituent part".

This version of the article is longer than in the printed paper.

The term "Cliffite" comes from the SWP's long-time leader Tony Cliff, who died in 2000. This search to regroup "the best" of the Cliffite diaspora is the most coherent of the perspectives spelled out among those quitting the SWP.

It leaves questions unanswered, though. What does "Cliffism" mean? Cliff's politics varied a lot over his lifetime. Who are the best, and who the worst, of the diaspora? How will the regrouped Cliffites relate to the rest of the revolutionary socialist left - those of us, like the AWL, who already inhabit the terrain outside the SWP? Does Renton think that we will be assimilated into his Cliffite ingathering? Or is he willing to debate and discuss with us?

Renton's perspective is different from that of the previous (spring 2013) wave of SWP-quitters, the main group of whom are in the International Socialist Network. Tom Walker, a leading figure in the ISN, writes on the ISN website that he seeks "a new approach fit for 2013, based on contemporary theoretical work instead of a return to any particular canon".

There are many different political shades in the ISN. Walker and other well-known ISNers such as Richard Seymour and China Mieville have published a blast accusing other ISNers of "the politics of anathema". "The IS Network at the moment tends toward the sect model... the dominant forces inside the organisation cannot forbear from abusing and insulting our own members" [i.e. Walker, Seymour, etc.]

Presumably the dispute had something to do with conflicts at the Left Unity conference on 30 November. Walker spoke at the conference for the trend in Left Unity which wants to model it on Die Linke in Germany, the Front de Gauche in France, the Syriza majority in Greece, etc. Some ISNers instead backed the harder-left Socialist Platform. The ISN as such made no statement one way or the other.

According to Walker: "A relatively significant number of people left the SWP, signed up for the network, and then were never heard from again... there was never one unitary opposition inside the party: the various declared factions were in reality coalitions of informal groupings based in part on shared politics but also significantly on social circles. It seems more likely than not that these informal groupings will continue to develop their politics in different ways... Some have become more orthodox Trotskyist, some more left communist, some more anarchist".

Another ISNer writes: "we've been inspired by many groups outside our tradition, including autonomists, anarchists and issue campaigns".

Quite a few of those who quit the SWP in spring 2013 have left the ISN; quite a few people who left the SWP much longer ago, or with non-SWP backgrounds, have joined. The London group of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, set up by Simon Hardy and Luke Cooper when they quit Workers' Power in April 2012, has joined the ISN, though the ACI's other significant group, in Manchester, has not.

The ISN had been talking about merging with the ACI and with Socialist Resistance (a small group which is a remnant from the old International Marxist Group, the "Mandelite" group in Britain: SR, like Walker, is in the Die-Linke-model wing of Left Unity). In late 2013, an ISN conference voted to go instead for a six-way merger of ISN, ACI, SR, Workers' Power, Plan C [an "autonomist-Marxist" group], and the IWW [a small revolutionary syndicalist group].

SR were upset - "Workers Power would be a pressure towards exactly the kind of narrow dogmatic organisation that we are trying to avoid" - and worried that the six-way plan would put off merger into the distant future.

In any case, "regroupment of the Cliffite diaspora" is not what the ISN is about.

We do not know how many of the NWSQ Dave Renton speaks for. The NWSQ's website has carried no statements or arguments about perspectives. Some student NWSQ have expressed a will to work with the broad-left National Campaign Against Fees And Cuts, which AWL students work in, and indicated that they are trying to reconfigure themselves as a group in the student left.

Andrew Burgin, one of the founders of Left Unity, has told LU that Mark Bergfeld (former SWP student organiser and Central Committee member, who resigned in early 2013 but isn't in ISN) will join Left Unity "and bring ex-SWP students with him". However, in Lambeth, south London, which has one of the most active and left-wing local LU groups, and a concentration of NWSQ, the NWSQ (around Rob Owen, also a one-time SWP student organiser) are active through their own group, "Brixton Rebels", and not through LU.

Another prominent NWSQer, Tony Cliff's authorised biographer Ian Birchall, said in his letter of resignation from the SWP that he planned to set up or join no new group, but expected to continue collaborating in practical activity with the SWP.

Counterfire, the group founded by John Rees and Lindsey German when they quit the SWP in February 2010, and the International Socialist Group in Scotland, founded by Chris Bambery when he quit in April 2011, must also be counted as part of the "Cliffite diaspora"; but are distant from both ISN and NWSQ.

Serious attention to the political legacy that formed them is a virtue for the ex-SWPers, and so is openness to other ideas and currents on the left. So far, however, those strands have failed to mesh into an effective combination.

The ISN formally announced early on that it was unwilling to discuss with AWL, though some NWSQers (and some individual ISNers) are more open. Oddly, though, they do not seem to have discussed and debated much even with those whom they consider closer, the anarchists, the autonomists, the syndicalists, the Mandelites, the ex Workers' Power people etc.: there is no sign of debate on any of the big theoretical issues embedded in those traditions.

All the SWP-quitters, to their credit, disputed SWP leader Alex Callinicos's charge that in combatting the SWP Central Committee they were rejecting the basic ideas of Lenin. They would do well now to heed an important thought from Lenin.

"The majority of the [trend whom Lenin was combatting] look with sincere resentment... upon all theoretical controversies, factional disagreements, broad political questions, plans for organising revolutionaries, etc.... [But] without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement".

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