Fear and loathing in the SLP

The question of Europe, and the Socialist Labour Party’s general stance on internationalism, is the linchpin to all the party’s policy documents. Will the SLP flow with history or against it? Eddie Ford investigates

It should be evident to everyone bar the most determinedly introspective that the question of Europe is of burning importance. In fact, it is not difficult to argue that Europe - ‘to integrate or not to integrate?’ - is rapidly becoming the issue. Whether it be from the camp of the bourgeoisie (‘should we sign up to the single currency now or later?’) or the workers’ movement (‘what are the organisational lessons of the Liverpool dockers’ dispute?’), serious answers have to be provided; and these answers are needed very much sooner rather than later.

This becomes more apparent every day. Both the Tories and New Labour twitch every time the words ‘Maastricht’, ‘Emu’ or ‘single European currency’ are uttered. Hardly surprising really, as the all but inevitable process of European ‘convergence’ is remorselessly exposing the fundamental weakness of British capitalism - and the truth hurts.

The Tories, of course, find this particularly traumatic. They are terrified of being excluded from the capitalist club that is Maastricht. Yet for the Eurosceptics the idea of the Tory Party abdicating its role as the living embodiment of Winston Churchill and ‘1,100 years of uninterrupted history’ (as the Daily Mail recently put it) is extremely distressing.

However, New Labour is also vulnerable to the Maastricht tremors. Even though the pages of Militant, for one, have in recent months been filled with excited speculation about the Tory Party cleaving down the middle - with the ‘Little Englanders’ forming some sort of Patriotic Party of Albion - we should not forget that it is in fact the Labour Party which has traditionally started to wilt under the European heat. There is a deep strain of ‘anti-Common Marketism’ within Labour - particularly so in the ‘hard left’.

The behaviour of New Labour, as general election day draws ever closer, has illustrated that the Tories are not the sole custodians of Euroscepticism. The pronouncements of self-proclaimed Euro-enthusiasts like Gordon Brown saw him shamelessly attempting to hijack the Tory agenda. He “pledged” that a Labour government would hold a referendum on the European single currency - a rally call we normally associate with the Tory Eurosceptic right.

As a consequence it is getting harder for the Tories to make quick and easy points over Labour, when it comes to playing the ‘patriotic’ card. Not for nothing did one Tory Eurosceptic bitterly complain that it made him “sick to the back teeth to see [John Major] being out-scepticked by Tony Blair”.

Therefore, communists welcome the vigorous, and sometimes heated, debate around Europe which has taken place inside the SLP - even if the leadership has, regrettably, endeavoured to smother the debate and rely on a mixture of bureaucratic heavy-handedness and excited demagoguery. Undeniably, Comrade Scargill himself clearly thinks that Europe is of utmost importance. In fact, for him it is a defining issue. For many in the SLP, comrade Scargill most prominently, Tony Blair and New Labour have betrayed the anti-Europe ‘ideal’ which they held to be so precious. After all, during the 1983 general election campaign the ‘leftwinger’ Neil Kinnock was advocating “total” withdrawal from the Common Market/EC.

Conversely, the amendments submitted to the May 1996 founding conference of the SLP revealed that its membership also recognises the importance of Europe. It is not difficult to see why. You do not have to be a wild eyed optimist to assume that the party as a whole is very well placed when it comes to capitalising upon, and channelling, ‘Eurodiscontent’ with the mainstream parliamentary parties, who all accept the remorseless capitalist offensive which underpins the Maastricht treaty (Mark I, II or III).

All we have to do is look across the Channel, as we know comrade Scargill does, to France, which has been the site of large demonstrations against the Maastricht treaty. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and, to a lesser extent, the Communist Party of France have ‘soaked up’ up the anti-Maastricht anger of the masses. Le Pen in particular has reaped the rewards electorally.

Naturally, comrade Scargill looks to places like France and thinks, ‘I can do that’. On the streets - the SLP’s natural political habitat, far removed from the farcical Westminster-centric antics of the Tory right - the message of ‘just say no’ to Maastricht will strike a resonance. Communists recognise this and, like the SLP, want to be with the masses on the streets, and elsewhere, against the anti-working class ramifications of the treaty. But, as communists, we are just as duty-bound to ask one further question. Do SLP policies match up to the job? Are they aimed at the liberation of all humanity, not just improving the living standards of the British working class?

It is from this programmatic perspective that we look at the SLP’s positions on Europe and ‘international affairs’. A communist perspective, that is, which believes that real socialism - ie, the dictatorship of the proletariat, not this or that ‘socialist’ government - can only develop and mature on the international level.

A sober headed, Marxist examination of these documents uncovers many ideological fingerprints. Hardly surprising, given the disparate and heterogeneous elements which have come together to form the SLP.

But, having said this, there can be little doubt that the biggest imprint on these documents has been made by the legacy of ‘official communism’, particularly as concretised in The British road to socialism, the programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain under its old leadership. This explains why Trotskyist publications, most notably Workers Power, have been so keen to label the SLP’s policies as “Stalinist”, and even dismissed the SLP project at one point on the grounds that it was only a “reformist Stalinist sect”. While such labels are, to put it extremely mildly, inaccurate, the charge is not entirely without foundation either. It is widely accepted that JV Stalin himself actually penned crucial formulations in The British road to socialism, with its mundane dreams of a non-violent, go-it-alone parliamentary road to so-called socialism. This schema infuses the SLP’s ‘programme’, even if comrade Scargill never hesitates to stress that the SLP is an “extra-parliamentary party” and a militant supporter of “direct action”. Also, while we do not believe in original sin, we should remember that the young Arthur Scargill in his Young Communist League days - very short-lived though they were - imbibed the BRS ethos, and his continued readership of the Morning Star does not indicate any rupture with ‘official communistic” left reformism.

Yes, comrade Scargill calls himself a “Marxist” and the SLP a “Marxist party”. Yet this no way diminishes the fact that in spite of all this the comrade is sketching out a reformist, not a revolutionary road to socialism.

This might seem confusing if ‘reformism’ is taken to mean any strategy which relies exclusively upon the ballot box and electoralism, and which rejects class struggle. This, we suspect, is what comrade Scargill has in mind when he castigates “reformism”. It was certainly what the BRS understood by reformism, that is for sure. Hence, it maintained:

“The reformist strategy is based entirely on the ballot box” (my emphasis, 1978 edition, p35). To believe in class struggle or extra-parliamentary action, the BRS logic goes, automatically means you cannot be a reformist but must be a ‘revolutionary’. From this viewpoint, then of course the SLP is a revolutionary party and it would be churlish, if not sectarian, to say otherwise.

The logic is spurious and false though, whatever the sincerity. A belief in class struggle and extra-parliamentary action in no way clashes with reformism per se - in fact, it can neatly complement a reformist orientation under certain circumstances. To say this is not a manifestation of ultra-leftism, though many might think so. A quick look at the past statements of Labour leftwingers illustrates that. In 198l Peter Hain told the Morning Star that “we cannot achieve socialism through parliamentary channels alone”, and in 1987 Ken Livingstone informed the no doubt alarmed Willesden and Brent Chronicle: “I am not in favour of the army. I am in favour of replacing it with armed workers’ brigades in the factories” (quoted in Jack Conrad Which road? London 1991, p48). Yet nobody could seriously argue that Peter Hain and Ken Livingstone were revolutionaries, even back in the halcyon days of the 1980s.

No. For all the convoluted word games the old BRS tried to play, and despite the endeavours of comrade Scargill to convince us otherwise, scientific Marxists have no difficulty in defining and nailing down the true nature of reformism. Reformism in the workers’ movement, in essence, entails the denial of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat (the armed rule of the workers over the bourgeoisie) and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state - a violent act which will sweep away parliamentary democracy, not make it ‘work better’. Without this scientific comprehension of reformism and revolutionism, “extra-parliamentary” action can never usher in revolutionary change and socialism.

Leninists inside the old CPGB fought tooth and nail against the reformist outlook of the BRS, the logic of which ultimately led to the liquidationism of the leadership. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we think revolutionaries inside the SLP should fight just as vigorously against the warmed up BRS now being served up as SLP policy.

This brings us to the actual policy documents. For anyone familiar with the hollow certainties of the BRS they can make for disheartening reading in places. We are presented with a narrow, parochial schema of how Britain can scale the dizzy heights of ‘socialism’, even if it means leaving the rest of the world, especially Europe, behind them. So here we have the uniquely British road to socialism, as mapped out by comrade Scargill - and by the CPGB before him, and every day in the pages of the Morning Star and elsewhere. Only this time with one vital, and crucial, difference of course. Comrade Scargill and the authors of the SLP policy documents have ‘air brushed’ out the Labour Party in their version of the BRS, an unspeakable heresy of course for defenders of BRS ‘orthodoxy’ like the Communist Party of Britain/Morning Star.

When picking up the document you are hit by the overwhelming sense of fear which animates the SLP’s approach to Europe - the fear that the scary outside world will sabotage SLP-controlled Britain’s forward march to socialism. Some members of the NEC really do believe they are drinking at the ‘last chance saloon’. The SLP policy document, presented to the May 1996 founding conference and agreed later by the NEC, makes this quite explicit:

“There is nothing in the constructions of the EEC [actually the EU - EF] for working people. The treaties and the massive bureaucracy effectively make any move towards socialism difficult, if not impossible. There is nothing in them for any genuine internationalist or socialist to support” (my emphasis, p34).

Clearly, only a naive fool or reactionary would argue that the “massive bureaucracy” in Brussels will facilitate the arrival of the socialist dawn. Capitalist institutions serve the interests of the capitalists, remarkably enough. Yes, say communists, the state structures of the EU will have to be swept aside, destroyed, in order to construct genuine socialism - ie, mass workers’ power exercised through its organs and institutions.

So, some might say, we obviously agree with this statement? No. The EU is being targeted by the authors of this document precisely because it makes “difficult, if not impossible” the SLP’s dream of a British road to socialism, whether it be parliamentary or “extra-parliamentary”.

If we were to passively accept the propositions of this document, we would have to fall for the dangerous illusion that it is possible to construct ‘socialism’ in splendid isolation from the European continent. The unspoken assumption behind the ‘anti-Maastricht’ rhetoric is that if Maastricht, and the EU, were to magically disappear overnight, then the task of constructing ‘socialism’ would somehow be made easier. In reality, for all the SLP NEC’s ‘wishful’ thinking, the ever increasing and accelerating integration of Europe - as part of the process of worldwide integration - supplies the only basis for real socialism.

The CPGB also used to argue, SLP-like, for British withdrawal from Europe. The living conditions of the working class, the revisionists’ hoary old story went, would improve - if not shoot up sky high - if the ‘downtrodden’ UK state escaped the evil clutches of ‘European’ bankers and capitalists. This would make everything OK and ‘socialism, here we come’. Sound familiar?

In the very first issue of The Leninist, the forerunner of the Weekly Worker, we roundly denounced the CPGB’s ostrich mentality: “To promise the working class, however, that its condition will improve simply by being outside the EEC whilst Britain still remains capitalist is misleading and untrue. British imperialism’s position in the world market has declined primarily because of its loss of traditional markets inherited from the empire. There is no reversing that fact... Britain’s withdrawal from the EEC would not necessarily improve the conditions of the working class” (The Leninist No1, Winter 1981/2). These words stand the test of time, the SLP appearing determined to repeat the mistakes of the old CPGB. It may protest that an ‘independent’ Britain would be ‘socialist’ under the SLP, not capitalist, but the ‘official communist’ logic is the same nevertheless: ‘We would be better off without Europe’.

Unfortunately for the leadership of the SLP, even as they pen their Canute-like protests, political events and history are leaving them behind. The Dublin conference in mid-December 1996 of finance ministers and heads of state saw a significant acceleration of the process of European integration. Finance ministers discussed proposals for a legal framework for the euro; for a new version of the currently defunct exchange rate mechanism (ERM); and a “stability pact”, designed to stop countries joining the single currency from ‘mismanaging’ their financial affairs. In addition French and German government officials are now circulating documents which contain proposals for a ‘Euro-tax’, which if implemented would see a single tax and social security system for Europe. Britain does seem locked into the “legislative one-way street” which Norman Lamont fears so much.

The Dublin conference should have acted as a massive alarm clock, telling the SLP leadership that the ‘socialist’ pound sterling - with or without comrade Scargill’s face on it - is never going to be, and could never possibly be so. However, the reasonable suspicion communists have is that Dublin, and the Dublins to come, will only act to increase the fear and loathing of the ‘national socialist’ wing of the SLP for all things European.

This is what we see. The SLP policy document, somewhat comically, castigates the “pro-Europeans” in New Labour who have

“fallen victim to the Great Illusion ... That the good things which may be found in this or that other European country ... were brought about by the Common Market”.

In reality, as we know, it is the SLP leadership which has been seduced by the “great illusion” - the idea of socialism in one country. ‘Small is beautiful’ could be the slogan emblazoned on the SLP’s Europe/International documents - which could partially help to explain the uncritical adoration of Cuba that exists in the SLP. While this springs mainly, of course, from a healthy affinity with Cuba’s courageous resistance to US imperialism, there is always the suspicion that for some in the SLP Cuba is elevated to a model for socialism precisely because of its backwardness and isolation, rather than despite it. Whatever our stringent criticisms of Fidel Castro and the state bureaucracy, Cuba has been forced to go it alone - a necessary evil, perhaps, but certainly not the positive good which comrade Scargill seems to imagine.

This has not gone unnoticed. In fact, it is only to be expected, as most SLP members would regard themselves as internationalists. It must also remain a permanent embarrassment to those members of the NEC who come from a Trotskyite/Fourth Internationalist tradition, which holds that the very idea of ‘socialism in one country’ is anathema.

There was an early rebellion against the eyes-down, national socialist outlook, much to the horror of the SLP tops. The policy workshop conference of March 2 1996 rejected the initial document drafted by the SLP, entitled ‘Europe and the left - the great illusion’. The European discussion group issued its own call for a ‘United Socialist States of Europe’, Trotsky’s much quoted formulation. Obviously, this was a healthy sign and revealed, not that it came as any surprise, that the majority of activists are to the left of Scargill. As we were being told - and still are - by comrade Scargill himself that the SLP was going to be a “members’ party” and not a rehashed, reinvented Labour Party, SLP members could be forgiven for thinking that things boded well for the May founding conference.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. For whatever reason, whether it be political skulduggery or bureaucratic incompetence (take your pick), the SLP steering committee presented the original rejected document at a reconvened policy meeting in Barnsley prior to the May conference. Amendments were subsequently submitted, most notably from the comrades in the Manchester branch. The heavy hand of Scargillite bureaucracy intervened once again, when the Manchester comrades were informed that their submission was ‘unacceptable’ as an amendment and that it should be re-submitted as an alternative resolution - but ‘sorry comrades, the deadline has passed for resolutions’. So, the Manchester resolution was not presented to the May conference, though the comrades were reassured that the incoming NEC would ‘redraft’ the European document after “taking into consideration” the resolution proposed by Manchester. Somewhat predictably all this amounted to nothing, as a bureaucratically induced ‘time famine’ saw the European document fall off the agenda and referred back to the NEC - much to their relief no doubt, given their obvious sensitivity in this area. A fairly sorry story, even if you allow a generous interpretation of the SLP’s manoeuvres and feints as regards the documents, amendments and resolutions.

Communists and revolutionary socialists regret that the Manchester resolution was not discussed at the May conference. It offered an alternative to the ‘Eurosceptical’ policy document, with its worries about a Common Market (sic) which “overrides the sovereignty” of Britain and its dread of a “European supranational state” - not that far removed from the John Redwood book of patriotic sermons.

The Manchester resolution flows with the dynamic of history, not against it. While the John Redwoods and Bill Cashes might nod approvingly at this section of the SLP policy documents, they would certainly gasp with horror at the proposals of the Manchester comrades. The resolution reads:

“As a socialist and internationalist party, the SLP will pursue a working class agenda on all matters relating to the EU. Whilst recognising that the EU is a capitalist club, we will be guided by the understanding that the more the process of economic and monetary union develops, then the more identical will become the immediate practical issues facing the working class of the EU nations. Thus the greater will become the opportunities for cross-border working class solidarity and coordinated action. That working class unity shall be our prime objective in European policy” (original emphasis).

This addresses the major flaw of the SLP policy document, which fails to raise the question of cross-border working class organisation. As communists and revolutionary socialists we should now be putting on the agenda a Europe-wide workers’ party, a Communist Party of Europe. As the old communist maxim goes: ‘One state, one party’. Insofar as the EU, post-1999 or whenever, represents ‘one state’, so should we be concentrating our efforts on forging ‘one party’. To do anything else is to retreat into national chauvinism and isolationism.

Correctly, the Manchester comrades state:

“The SLP will adopt a position of neutrality on British membership of the EU. We will not be drawn into expressing preferences for one form of capitalist organisation over another. We are for the destruction of capitalism and its replacement by international socialism.”

This is a principled position. Revolutionaries are neutral if we are being asked to choose between a capitalist Britain or a capitalist Europe. Any future referendum on a single currency must be viewed in exactly the same light - any ‘left’ voice which calls upon us to vote against a single currency (or an EU ‘superstate’) must be rejected, otherwise objectively we will find ourselves in the same camp as John Redwood and Sir George Gardner - or, for that matter, Dennis Skinner, another notable ‘anti-EUer’. His heartfelt contempt for the Tories, and the British establishment in general, may be perfectly commendable, but his British-centric narrowness - such as boasting about never owning a passport - offers nothing for humanity as a whole.

This was, of course, the mistake of the old ‘official’ CPGB, which campaigned vigorously for a ‘no’ vote in the 1975 referendum on the Common Market. We must never repeat such mistakes and find ourselves abandoning the world-historic task of communism. This is exactly what Militant Labour/the Socialist Party is doing, but this time from the Trotskyite end of the spectrum. A recent editorial, virtually lifting its copy from 1970’s CPGB literature, stated: “ML supports the call for a referendum on a single currency.” It went on to say: “Militant would call for a rejection of a single currency and the European Union” (Militant November 22 1996). Thus ML/SP Limps miserably behind history, instead of ahead of it.

Some of the amendments actually submitted to the European document at the May conference were also positive. Comrade Alan Docherty from Darlington SLP took umbrage at the suspicious phrase, “exclusive nationalism”, which surfaces twice (paragraphs 7 and 11) in the policy document, and asked for them to be removed. If the SLP is against “exclusive nationalism”, do we have to presume that it is in favour of ‘inclusive’ nationalism, or ‘non-racist’ nationalism? This is not a pedantic or facetious point. The logic of a peculiarly British road to ‘socialism’ can only lead to such a conclusion - ie, national chauvinism. This was amply demonstrated by the ‘immigration document’ and the debate around it, with the conference voting for ‘socialist’ immigration controls. Perhaps the SLP NEC thinks this is only ‘inclusive’ nationalism, therefore acceptable?

Comrades Trevor Wongsam and Rachel Newton, also from Manchester SLP, (along with their comrades in the Fourth International Supporters Caucus) dissented against the narrow ‘anti-EU’ spirit of the policy documents. Putting forward a set of sweeping amendments, the comrades argued: “We should not approach the question simply on the basis of opposition, because on this negative terrain with no alternative to Maastricht or a united Europe, those who wave the Union Jack with a vision of a return to imperial splendour will win the argument” (my emphasis). They went on to correctly maintain: “Our task therefore is to change the terms of debate on Europe in the eyes of the working class ... We have a place in the Europe-wide struggle for socialism.” This makes it all the more curious that comrade Wongsam was a passionate supporter of ‘socialist’ immigration controls at the conference.

The amendments submitted to the International document, which also fell off the agenda in May, provided further evidence of a genuine internationalist tendency. The policy document is saturated with liberalistic solidarity-mongering more at home in the pages of The Guardian than in a revolutionary socialist organisation. It talks blandly about how the SLP “supports sustainable social and economic development throughout the world”, how it would “help construct alliances for the peaceful development of the world”, “build solidarity with all popular struggles for justice, freedom and democracy” and calls for the “cancellation of the debts of the poor countries”. No mention of revolution or the need for strident anti-militarism and anti-imperialism.

It is no accident that the word ‘imperialism’ is never mentioned in any of the policy documents. If it was, it would have forced the comrades to actually define imperialism. To do so would have instantly made their plans look utopian and foolish.

We must look to Lenin then, and not the SLP documents, for a precise definition of imperialism. He said the essence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism. It is the replacement of competitive, industrial capitalism by monopoly through the massive concentration of the ownership of the means of production into fewer and fewer hands and the growing together of industrial capital and banking capital to form finance capital. In other words it is a stage - the highest - in capitalism’s evolution (see VI Lenin Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism).

It flows logically from this Leninist understanding that imperialism can only be ‘discarded’ by going forward with a social revolution on an international scale, not by de-evolving the transnationals back into thousands, if not millions, of small competing concerns - or by ‘rescuing’ the nation-state from extinction. All the SLP documents, to one degree or another, are underpinned by this nostalgic hostility to capitalism’s forward march. ‘If only we can stuff the genie back in the bottle,’ sighs comrade Scargill. Communists, on the other hand, want to harness the power of the genie.

The amendments proposed demonstrate that SLP members are reluctant to prettify international imperialism. The South London SLP amendments were cutting in the extreme. They called for the original formulation, which talked about the SLP’s international policies coming from “our commitment to change the world”, to be changed to “a rejection of international capitalism” - a much less Guardian-friendly orientation.

Crucially, another South London SLP amendment rejects out of hand the pacifistic, utopian nature of the policy document, as encapsulated in paragraph 7:

“Socialist Labour believes that Britain’s defence industry and defence forces are much too big for our real needs. Consequently we would withdraw all British forces from overseas, including Ireland, cut our defence budget by two-thirds and break our economy’s reliance on arms exports through diversification.”

This heart-rending appeal for a slimmed down, ‘progressive’ imperialism is rebutted firmly by South London in favour of an unmistakably proletarian internationalist stance: “The SLP would stand down the armed forces and would organise workers’ defence squads to defend the interests of the working class.” Logically, in order to “defend” the revolutionary gains, the working class must have access to the most advanced weaponry available, up to and including nuclear technology - something specifically rejected by the policy document, which curiously informs us that Britain “does not need nuclear weapons” and that the SLP “supports unilateral disarmament”. British imperialism certainly needs its weapons. If socialists are to disarm it we need to be armed to the teeth ourselves. Pious pleading will not get us far against a war machine developed over decades of imperialist barbarism. We do not recall Fidel Castro piously refusing Soviet military assistance, and Che Guevara seems an unlikely candidate for membership of CND.

If we examine as a whole all the amendments put forward for the May conference, you can see that a struggle is going on within the SLP between two different ‘socialisms’. In the one corner, comrade Scargill with his bureaucratic national socialism, which is handed down and rules over the working class. In the other corner, an emancipatory, internationalist socialism, which comes from below and represents the rule of the working class. We must ensure that the SLP membership is not left with the grey and monochrome socialism implicit in the policy documents, Europe being a perfect case.

At packed meetings throughout the country, comrade Scargill has been announcing, “Out of Europe: into the world!” The loyal, enthusiastic, but slightly disbelieving audiences have been told that this can be done by trading with places like Cuba and New Zealand (and North Korea as well, perhaps?).

It would be the working class which would have to pay the price for the national-escapist fantasies presented above - regardless of whether it was an SLP government or not which acted upon them. The North Korean juche path advocated by the Scargillites, which sees Britain trading Havana cigars and wool with remote comers of the world, would inevitably lead to a dramatic plunge in the living standards of the working class, The weekly visit to Sainsbury’s would end up a truly depressing affair, as workers gaze longingly at the shelves where the Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese used to be. Whatever the good intentions of comrade Scargill may be, such a ‘socialism’ would sooner or later be directed against the working class. What is more, the subsequent demoralisation would result in an abrupt collapse of support for the original dream-makers.

At the May conference we were rather insultingly told by comrade Brian Heron and some of his wannabe acolytes that immigration controls were necessary to “keep reactionaries out” - which apparently included all white South Africans. Communists suspect though that immigration controls, or worse, would be needed to keep the working class in,desperate to flee the austere shores of the ‘new Jerusalem’.

As Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky knew, real socialism can only be constructed on the shoulders of the most advanced capitalism - which is inextricably interlinked, which is international, which is global. We need to seize what history has given us, not stubbornly turn our backs on it. This is the struggle which must, and will, continue within the SLP.