A republican party of the working class

Jan Berryman analyses developments in the SLP from a republican-communist angle

The struggle to forge the SLP into the republican party of the working class has just taken two very tentative steps forward and one step back. The first step was taken when the National Executive Committee published the report of its republican constitution committee. The implication of this report is that the SLP now supports a republican constitution for the UK. It is worth remembering that the leadership of the SLP have managed to avoid any serious discussion on this matter through two party congresses and two referendums in Scotland and Wales.

At the founding congress, there was a report from the republican constitution working group. The SLP bureaucracy failed to circulate this report to the branches. It was put as the last item on the congress agenda and not discussed.  So when the Scottish and Welsh referendums were held, the SLP had no real policy. A further attempt to get this issue before the delegates at the 1997 congress failed. An amendment from Liverpool, calling for a federal republic, was ruled out of order without any valid reason. John Hendy QC, who gave the report of the congress arrangements committee, could not explain it.

The SLP Republicans, dissatisfied with the situation, had been organising and lobbying for change. A republican candidate received 216 votes as part of the Democratic Platform. The argument was put that we need a working class republican party, which is democratic and contains within its ranks both communists and those from a socialist or left Labour tradition. Support for a federal republic was not drawn up on normal left-right lines. It gained a sympathetic hearing from all sections of the SLP. Some on the left were against it and some for it. The same was true of the SLP right and centre.

In a rather perverse way the second step forward was in the struggle for democracy in the SLP itself. The SLP left had united on the issue of democratic rights for rank and file members. They did unexpectedly well at the congress, despite the 3,000 block vote that appeared like a rabbit out of a hat. Only naive people thought the democratic arguments would win, and were therefore disappointed. A more sober estimate of the situation suggests that the democratic left did better than expected. They gained up to a third of the votes at SLP congress. But for the block votes they might even have secured a seat on the NEC.

One of the central demands of the Democratic Platform was the right to publish platforms, slates and bulletins. The Marxist Bulletin, the Republicans and the Democratic Platform took up this right in practice. Scargill and the leadership acknowledged from the platform that different points of view existed in the party. They recognised the existence of different slates. They decided not to take action against those who committed this ‘crime’, but to publish their own slate. We await to see whether the SLP leadership will now clamp down. In the present state of the SLP it is probably one of the most stupid things they could do. But don’t hold your breath.

The congress also exposed a split between the right and the right-centre (Fisc). These allies fell out in full view of the membership. As a result, the expected victory for comrade Scargill came at the expense of the public exposure of his 3,000 block votes. This has been very damaging for him. But it will open up the democratic debate to a wider layer of the membership.

Prior to congress the main issue affecting some members was their right to be in the SLP. Some were voided. Some were banned from holding meetings. Some who were late paying their subs were disqualified from membership.

If these methods continue we are likely to see the final implosion of the SLP. The morale of the troops on the ground wouldn’t stand for more of the same. The SLP project can only be saved if the leadership continues the move signalled at congress to a more open and tolerant regime.

After all, what has Arthur got to fear? He controls the National Executive and with his block votes he controls the congress too. Is he really that frightened of criticism by rank and file members? Surely not.

Whilst the SLP, despite itself, may have taken two steps forward at congress, we have now taken one step back. A section of the SLP left has now decided to leave the party. On January 10 1998 they formed a new group - Socialist Perspectives. This is the first group born out of the SLP. An historic moment? Perhaps. Certainly the SLP was born out of a number of groupings and individuals coming together. Now after two years, we see the first signs of movement in the opposite direction.

It was a step backwards. For some it proves the failure of the SLP project itself. In other ways it is a product of the failure of the SLP left. Those who speak for this group tell us it is too early to say what this new group stands for. They are in the process of working these matters out. That in itself indicates the premature nature of this new birth.

The SLP left has comprised many individuals with a range of backgrounds and views. Over two years they have made various attempts to organise themselves into a coherent position. The Revolutionary Platform, the Left Network, Socialist Labour Action and the Campaign for a Democratic SLP have all appeared, only to disappear almost as quickly. Prior to the 1998 congress this process began to sort out and clarify different perspectives.

As a rough approximation the left were divided three ways. First were the ultra-lefts - essentially Trotskyists who joined with the aim of winning the SLP to become a revolutionary Marxist party (or communist party). They are seeking to persuade the SLP to adopt Trotsky’s Transitional programme. Some of these comrades formed Socialist Labour Action and others set up Marxist Bulletin. The latter have now become the main voice of Trotskyism in the SLP. The second grouping were independent or non-aligned lefts. These are not really a group: more a collection of individuals. They do not have any common programmatic positions. Some are more sympathetic to Trotskyism and others to republicanism. The third grouping are the SLP Republicans. Some commentators, such as Dave Craig, describe these comrades as not being on the left, but rather in the centre between left and right. Others consider them to be a left group who reject the ultra-left politics of Trotskyism.

The SLP Democratic Platform was a united front between the independents and the republicans. The Marxist Bulletin were also involved. In the end they refused to join the Democratic Platform in order to uphold their ideological purity. The rest of the left considered the Marxist Bulletin’s approach to unity as a typical example of left sectarianism.

The new Socialist Perspectives group is in essence the majority of the independent left forming themselves into something more than a campaign for democracy. With their exit there are now only two remaining perspectives - a republican perspective and a Trotskyist one.

The SLP left has failed at least in part because it has been dominated by ultra-leftism. This has been shown in terms of the Trotskyist programme and in adventurist stunts and sectarian tactics. When the SLP was formed and communists joined, they brought the virus of leftism with them. Lenin was very clear that ultra-leftism is a symptom of immaturity. Communists cannot become a real political force in the SLP, in the trade unions or in society if they suffer from the infantile disorder of leftism. Socialist Perspectives is a continuation of the same. It is yet another adventuristic turn, which has no basis in reality. They will soon be forced to decide on what type of party and what kind of republicanism they are in favour of.

Ian Driver (Letters Weekly Worker January 8) was amazed that despite the lack of democracy in the SLP we should call on socialists to remain as active members. He suggests that the SLP left are powerless because of Scargill’s constitution. This is surely constitutional fetishism. The left are powerless because they have not developed a programme which fits today’s situation. Such a programme would be powerful because it could unite our meagre forces, and draw ever wider support from the working class. With mass support it could roll over the British constitution, never mind Arthur’s constitutional tablets of stone.

Arthur’s constitution may be a nuisance, but it is not all-powerful and it certainly will not stop a movement of the working class. The reason that most of the left are in the SLP is nothing to do with whether the Labour Party or the SLP has the most democratic constitution. The SLP was not set up on a democratic basis. It was not democratic when Ian Driver joined or when he left. The reason why some of the left remain in the SLP is not because of democracy or the lack of it but because of the current situation and the objective tasks that socialists must carry out.

During the last 10 years the socialist and communist movement in the UK has experienced many setbacks. The trade union movement has been weakened by mass unemployment and an employers’ offensive. We have seen the rise of New Labour alongside the defeat and marginalisation of the Labour left. The Communist Party was fragmented and liquidated and neither the Socialist Party nor the SWP have been capable of filling the vacuum. If Blair was facing a mass revolutionary communist party, then working class militants would face a direct choice. But at present there is no such party, nor any immediate prospect of creating one.

In the present situation, we must work for the unity of the left and the unity of revolutionary communists. We need rapprochement between revolutionary communists and the refoundation of a party of the left. We need a party of the left that can mount a challenge to Labour. In theory such a party could contain the Labour lefts, Socialist Party, SWP, SLP and other Marxists. At present many are ruled out not just by Arthur’s constitution, but by their determination to back Labour in elections, especially the Labour lefts and the SWP.

This type of party has been called “a party of recomposition”, a “communist-Labour party”, “a party of refoundation” and “a party of the broad left”. In Italy (RC), Spain (United Left) and in Germany (PDS) such parties have emerged out of the crisis of Stalinism and a vacuum on the left. Yet in many ways these are all misnomers.

The SLP was formed under the Tory government. It was an anti-Blair party at a time when Blair’s popularity was rising. It was a party of decomposition. Arthur Scargill’s history enabled him to be a magnet for all the fragmented and decomposing elements of the left. He has drawn together a rag, tag and bobtail army. Here we find the decomposing elements from Labourism and the NUM, as well as from Stalinism, Trotskyism and the SWP, etc all thrown together.

To call the SLP a party of decomposition should not be seen as an insult. It is merely the reality that we have to deal with. We are wading up to our necks in the mud and slime of the British working class movement. It has made many people feel very sick. Ian Driver has gone off to vomit in one corner and Socialist Perspective are searching for a different corner to be sick in. What they will soon discover is that there are no safe havens and nowhere to avoid the shit and puke. We just have to fight our way through it until we come out the other side.

A ‘party’ of decomposition can take many forms. In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Alliance has played that role. In England and Wales the Socialist Alliances are much less significant. They are in competition with the SLP. The failure of the SLP to take on board first Militant Labour, then comrades Coates and Kerr (MEPs) and now the exit of Socialist Perspectives all indicate that the SLP is failing in its duties. Had the SLP developed along the right lines, all these decomposing elements would now be on board. The Socialist Alliances and the Socialist Party would be dead in the water. As it is the Socialist Alliances are now a lifeboat for everybody

A party of decomposition is inevitably a mess. But it is also the reality that we have to deal with. It is a party with a limited life span. It must transform itself into a party of renewal and refoundation or it will steadily degenerate. From decomposition to refoundation means turning the negative into the positive. It has to become a republican party of the working class.

This is the positive alternative to Blair’s agenda, not simply a negative and defensive reaction to it. The Chartist party in the 1840s was the first republican party of the working class (strictly speaking semi-republican). Now that we face the constitutional agenda of New Labour, there has never been a better time to recreate a party that puts the constitutional interests of the working class to the fore.

Whether the SLP can make the transition to a party of republican refoundation remains to be seen. The Chartist party was a rebel party, a party of popular democratic revolution. It was a party which organised the mass mobilisation of the working class on the streets. This is the kind of party that the left needs today. We need a republican party of the working class, which can attract both Labourites and communists and which can develop the democratic and socialist alternative to New Labour.

The collapse of the SLP into a Stalinist rump will not benefit the left. It will not benefit Ian Driver or Socialist Perspectives. It will not benefit the working class. It will benefit the Blair government. At a stroke it will remove the only possible electoral danger from the left. The fate of Scargill and his party will be a warning to any rebels in the Labour Party. In the current circumstances resigning from the SLP without a serious debate and consideration of the options plays into the hands of Labour and therefore constitutes yet another ultra-left move.