Against Taaffe

A split between the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Party in England and Wales has long been on the cards. Peter Taaffe already has his own preferred faction in Dundee around Phil Stott. But recently the Sheridan-McCombes-Curran SSP majority has gone on the offensive, in particular by highlighting the extremely backward, not to say back-stabbing, role of SPEW in the London Socialist Alliance. As can be seen from Frances Curran's article taken from May's Committee for Workers International Members Bulletin, written on behalf of the political committee in Scotland, Taaffe is on very weak ground. His executive committee's reply feebly claimed that her article "seems to have" been based "on reports of other hostile organisations", above all the Weekly Worker, which purportedly publishes "malicious fantasy from beginning to end"

We have read the article entitled 'Ken Livingstone and a new workers' party', carried in the April 2000 issue of Socialism Today.

There are a number of points that we would like to raise concerning the article. These points reflect the opinion of the majority of members of the political committee of the International Socialist Movement, and in our estimation, the opinion of the majority of ISM members.

The very first point we would have to raise is: how is it possible to carry a four-and-a-half-page article on the question of socialist alliances and a new workers' party and fail to mention the experience of the Scottish Socialist Party? ....

The article mentions Scotland in the context of socialist alliances, it mentions the Scottish parliament elections and it mentions the Ayr by-election - yet fails to mention the success of the SSP, which in the context of the Socialism Today article is surely the most salient point ... we are especially shocked by the omission of any mention of the SSP's remarkable achievement in defeating one of the governing coalition parties, the Lib Dems, in a semi-rural, largely middle class constituency far from the working class heartlands of Clydeside. The Socialism Today article says:

"The Ayr by-election, in which Labour was reduced to third position behind the Tories and the Scottish National Party, following on the heels of the fiasco of Alun Michael in Wales and the looming victory of Livingstone, also underlines the scale of the crisis facing New Labour. Because neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats are seen as an alternative."

The key question rightly posed by the article is, what is the alternative? And then it fails to answer the point - because in Ayr the answer would have to be the SSP. Incredibly the article says, "Neither the Tories or the Liberals are seen as an alternative" - then, incredibly, omits to acknowledge the defeat of the Lib Dems by the SSP. Even the bourgeois press have recognised the significance of the SSP vote in Ayr as witnessed by the quotes below:

"The Scottish Socialist Party is rapidly carving out a reputation as a thorn in the side of Labour and its performance at Ayr only served to underline this ... Although the SSP is viewed by the mainstream parties as nothing more than a noisy outsider, on this by-election performance it appears Mr Sheridan and his supporters' claim to be serious contenders to become Scotland's fourth party holds more and more water" (The Scotsman March 18).

"But the SNP finds itself facing another challenge in the race to capture Labour votes. That challenge comes from the Scottish Socialist Party: its four percent performance on Thursday pushed the Liberal Democrats into fifth place. The SSP's performance here, as in Hamilton South, coupled with its continuing showing in opinion polls, demands that the party is taken as a serious contender in the Scottish political scene - and not just in Glasgow" (political analyst Malcolm Dickson, The Herald March 18) ....

The significance of the SSP as an alternative to Labour is hard to ignore, yet this article managed it. Are we supposed to take this analysis seriously?

Recent articles in The Socialist, notably the recent centre-page article by Peter on Livingstone and the London Socialist Alliance have also failed to mention the SSP. There is even reference to the track record of the SWP in refusing to participate in the Welsh Socialist Alliance and other socialist alliances without any reference to the role of the SWP in Scotland where the first and most successful socialist alliance was constructed.

It is a bizarre paradox that, while the success of the SSP is widely acknowledged in virtually every publication of the left in England and Wales, from Red Pepper through to the Socialist Worker (which in contrast to The Socialist carried a report of the success of the SSP in the Ayr by-election), the publications of the SP have conspicuously ignored the SSP, except where it is impossible to do so. We believe that the comrades are deliberately covering up the impact that the SSP has made while simultaneously whipping up hysteria within the International about our alleged opportunism, liquidationism, nationalism, abandonment of Trotskyism, etc, etc (we have been accused by one IS member at the recent women's school in Germany of "having illusions in multinational capitalism"). We will answer all of these allegations in a separate statement.

We raise these points, not because it has any impact on our work one way or another, but because it is miseducating and disarming the organisation in England and Wales. It is in our opinion tragic that the SWP appears to have drawn lessons from the experience of SML, the SSA and the SSP in Scotland, and is now attempting to emulate our successes, while the SP has closed its eyes to the experience of Scotland. It is no accident that the SWP made a turn to the LSA shortly after the SSP Socialism 2000 event which was attended by some of the London-based leaders of the SWP.

The Socialism Today article completely fails to provide any strategy for comrades in England and Wales concerning socialist unity and the question of a new workers' party, and therefore fails to provide a clear orientation. The main aim of this article appears to be to justify the SP's leadership opposition to the launch of the SSP and its refusal to recognise the importance of socialist alliances in the process of the rebuilding of the workers' movement

A balanced article would at least acknowledge the experience of the Scottish Socialist Alliance and then the Scottish Socialist Party, while explaining that the situation in London is more complicated. Its starting point should have been the correctness of the role of SML in Scotland in building genuine left unity and contrasting that with the more sectarian approach of the SWP, who have forced through votes by force of numbers.

However, simply denouncing the role of the SWP does not exhaust the question of the London Socialist Alliance. We have to ask two questions: first, why have the SWP been given a free run to march in and take over a movement which we initiated over four years ago, flowing from the experience of the Scottish Socialist Alliance; and secondly, can the London Socialist Alliance simply be dismissed as a front for the SWP and/or a collection of middle class sects?

The ST article states: "Pressure to withhold the trade union levies which go to New Labour and debates over the future use of the political fund in the unions have intensified. Individual union branches in London have even considered putting up candidates for the London Assembly, such is the depth of disillusionment with New Labour. In these movements are the outlines of future real working class and sizeable socialist alliances, which can provide the basis upon which a new mass party of the working class will develop."

What does this mean? Are the comrades hoping that the trade unions will establish a new socialist alliance in opposition to the LSA? It seems to us unlikely at this stage that the unions will move to establish anything in opposition to Labour, at least in the near future. And if and when such a development eventually does take place, will it necessarily completely bypass the LSA? In fact there is a long list of trade union branches which have supported the LSA, in contrast even to Scotland, where union branches have been fearful about openly sponsoring a rival force to Labour for fear of disciplinary action.

The article is saying to comrades wait, wait, wait and in the meantime engage in passive propaganda about the need for a mass workers' party. We believe that you are in danger of underestimating the potential for the LSA, a glimmer of which has been seen over the recent period, whatever the role played by the SWP ....

The article goes on to state: "New Labour grandees like Philip Gould, the originator of the infamous focus groups, believe that the so-called core Labour voters have nowhere else to go but to tamely line up behind the New Labour electoral bandwagon. That idea was punctured in Wales and Scotland where those workers who did not abstain in disgust used protest votes for the nationalists and independent socialists to punish the government. Even in England, where a similar threat was allegedly 'inconceivable', growing support for the Socialist Party led to the election of Socialist Party councillors in Lewisham and Coventry."

We have to say that this paragraph is a disgraceful piece of political manoeuvring. Firstly it argues that workers who wanted to protest in Wales and Scotland voted for nationalists and "independent socialists". Who are these independent socialists? ...

The next piece of analysis is even more unfortunate. It is argued that, while in Wales and Scotland workers used protest votes for "independent socialists" to "punish the government", in England the same process meant "growing support for the Socialist Party", leading to "the election of Socialist Party councillors". So in Scotland workers voted socialist negatively to punish the government, while in England they voted positively in favour of socialist ideas!

Why can't the comrades acknowledge the impact the SSP has had in raising conscious support for the ideas of socialism, which is the main explanation for the support the SSP has now gained? There is absolutely no ambiguity here - the SSP is seen as a clearly socialist party by the mass of the Scottish working class. Those who want simply to protest have the SNP - a party which is seen as being to the left of Labour and which has of course a much greater profile than the SSP.

The article then moves on to take up the issue of socialist alliances, stating: "The throwing back of socialist consciousness and the weakening of the left in the 1990s meant that the socialist alliances could only involve small forces. Indeed, in Scotland, England and Wales, the Socialist Party constituted the largest and most decisive section of the socialist alliances ... It was an open question, given the sectarian, petty bourgeois character of most of the other groups involved, whether they could grow and develop or, as was most likely, be by-passed and replaced by more representative working class bodies."

The first point which needs correcting here is that it was not the Socialist Party, but SML that made up the largest section of the Scottish Socialist Alliance.

The perspective contained here for the socialist alliances is a rewriting of history ... At the time there was political agreement with the Socialist Party EC on the question of alliances. The characterisation of alliances as being sectarian and petty bourgeois came later and goes some way in explaining why the SP could not see the potential for the development of the LSA. It becomes clearer in the following statement:

"We initiated the socialist alliances in most areas of England and Wales in the latter part of the 1990s. At the same time we were realistic about the forces that were involved. They were composed, in the main, of ourselves (the Socialist Party), some genuine ex-Labour Party leftwingers, but also small, largely insignificant, organically ultra-left sectarian grouplets. This was the case in the London 'Socialist Alliance' (LSA), even when the Socialist Party was the largest force within it. This body could not take off mainly because of the objective situation."

The real perspective of the SP was that alliances, in particular the LSA, were "insignificant" and could "not take off" mainly because of "the objective situation". So there wasn't any real commitment to the preparatory work of seriously building the alliance, there was no perception of how the LSA could take off. Yet take off it has....

How is this possible? What changed the objective situation? Why did the SP not anticipate this change in the objective situation and position itself to take advantage? Was it merely the involvement of the SWP that changed the objective situation across London? These points are not answered, but they need to be if the SP is to correct the mistaken strategy that has left them as bit players in the socialist drama which is unfolding in London ....

The comrades then set up a non-existent argument so that it can be knocked down: "It would have been fatal from the standpoint of the future influence of Marxism, therefore, for the Socialist Party to have handed over to the London Socialist Alliance its apparatus of full-time workers, press finance, etc."

Of course it would have been a mistake for the SP to hand over all of its apparatus to the LSA, but who exactly was arguing this? It is not a question of all or nothing - the real question posed is what resources the SP should have put towards the building of the LSA.

In Scotland we did not give over any of our apparatus to the SSA, but we did put the full weight of the organisation, including the leadership and our branches, behind the establishment of the SSA. This was not done in London because of the scepticism of the leadership of the SP towards the LSA. The impression we get in Scotland is that the SWP have put big resources into the LSA, including full-timers, offices and printing facilities, in the same way we did with the anti-poll tax movement.

The last part of the article is one long criticism of the SWP and their approach to and behaviour within the LSA. Comrades complain that they voted down en masse a resolution from our comrades at Lewisham branch on the say-so of their full-timer, and that they are merely treating the LSA as a party-building exercise, wanting "to recruit as many new members as they can". The article continues:

"Such tactics will never educate and develop the cadres of a genuine revolutionary or socialist party. Moreover, their methods will alienate workers genuinely looking for the maximum principled socialist unity to take the working class forward."

We agree, but they are precisely the methods which the comrades are attempting to impose on our organisation in Scotland, in our intervention within the SSP. How do the comrades think the SWP should conduct themselves, especially regarding democratic centralism and recruitment to the SWP?

The analysis of the SWP's turn to the LSA is described as a short-term raiding party - in the words of SK when he visited Scotland recently, "a simple smash and grab raid". This smacks more of wishful thinking than reality....

We believe that the Socialist Party in England and Wales has made a number of mistakes in relation to the LSA. It would be a huge error if these are repeated at a national level.

It is difficult for us to see this article as anything other than a yearning for a return to the glory days of entryism, when we worked within a broad mass party - a kind of Grantism with a new workers' party in place of Labour ...

We do not disagree with the call for a new mass workers' party as a general demand in England and Wales, but the comrades themselves admit that it is not immediately on the agenda. Therefore counterposing that general idea to the immediate task of reconstructing a powerful socialist force is to substitute passive propaganda for active leadership in the immediate political struggle against Blairism and against pro-capitalist ideology in general ...