Fighting liquidationism with Taaffeism

The reply of the Socialist Party executive committee to Scottish Militant Labour

We are writing to you at very short notice in response to your statement ‘Initial proposals for a new Scottish Socialist Party’, written by Alan McCombes on behalf of the SML EC (March 6). We received a copy of this document on March 12. It is no exaggeration to say that its contents were a bombshell for the EC. When the Scottish NC members discussed with Peter [Taaffe], Mike [Waddington] and Lynn [Walsh] at our national conference in Morecombe in September 1997, they told us that their position was that SML should change its name and continue to work within the SSA. Evidently, things have developed since that time and comrades have to respond to events. But nothing prepared us for the proposals which are now being put forward.

The document states: “We are proposing that, providing we can reach agreement with other forces, the apparatus of SML, including our paper, our finances, our membership, our premises and our full time staff would be transferred to a new SSP”. SML branches would merge with the branches of the new party. There are some ambiguous, if not contradictory, suggestions to the effect that “if any existing groups, including SML, wanted to retain an organisational structure within the new party, they should be able to be accommodated”. But in our view, the whole emphasis of the document is on the merging of our organisation into a new formation, without any proposals that would guarantee our distinct organisational identity and political cohesion.

It is claimed that the new party, like the SSA, would be based on “a very clear and concrete programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a new socialist Scotland with an internationalist perspective”. Yet neither the SSA’s Charter for Socialist Change (April 1996) nor ‘Some preliminary suggestions for a Scottish socialist manifesto’ (January 1998) actually fits this description. Moreover, it is clear from the document that the proposed SSP would be “a new broad socialist party” and the references to “in-depth negotiations with other forces” do not outline any criteria which would ensure the new party would adopt the perspectives, programme, party-building methods and so on which would ensure the continuation of a Marxist revolutionary party. On the crucial question of international affiliation, the document in effect accepts that the new SSP would not be affiliated to the CWI. As you know, the EC proposed last year that we should begin a discussion on whether SML under a new name should become a separate section of the CWI, which we favour. But what is proposed in this document is fundamentally different.

We believe that if the document’s proposals are accepted they would lead to the dissolution of our organisation and the loss of our clear and cohesive political identity. Many of the ideas posed in this document, in our view, pose an extreme danger for our organisation.

The Scottish comrades have every right to raise any political issue, however controversial. But the EC feels very strongly that the Scottish NC members should have raised these issues in discussion before producing a document, especially only two weeks before the Scottish conference. We recognise that events are moving fast in Scotland, and it is urgent to clarify our strategy. But such far-reaching proposals cannot be discussed and rushed through in a couple of weeks. It is vital that there is a full discussion, both in the all-British organisation and in the CWI.

We recognise that any discussion within our ranks at the present time is inevitably carried into the public domain. Nevertheless, it is still essential that key issues of perspectives, strategy and tactics are clarified and the implications fully discussed. We cannot limit our internal discussion on account of the possible reactions from others on the left. Because of the urgency of the discussions, we are making a number of brief points in this letter, which we will elaborate as the discussion continues.

While agreeing with many of the points made on perspectives, we consider that some points need more discussion. For example, the point that the recent upward curve of the British economy has “reinforce[d] the grip of free market ideology” is too one sided. The recovery has been extremely weak and one-sided, alleviating the conditions of some sections of the working class but at the same time widening the gap between the rich and the poor, fuelling enormous resentment against the system.

The main issue at the moment however, is the situation opened up by the coming elections for the Scottish parliament. It is clear to us from the document that the reasons being put forward to justify these new proposals are primarily electoral. Elections are important, and we have always been ready to seize the opportunities for strengthening the political influence of socialist ideas and our party through election campaigns. Winning positions in parliament or on local councils can be an extremely important lever. However, electoral considerations do not override all other issues and have to be weighed up in relation to the future influence and gains of our party.

We fully accept that the coming elections for the Scottish parliament, the next round of council elections and the Euro-elections will provide us with important opportunities which we should use to the full. However, the comments in paragraph three of the document are, in our view, quite exaggerated. If the socialist left fails to make a breakthrough in these elections, it says “the advance of socialism could be slowed down”. Socialist victories, on the other hand, “dramatically accelerate events”. Winning a handful of council seats and one or two seats in the Scottish parliament “could stimulate the start of an unstoppable revival of socialism in Scotland”. The document itself accepts that 15% for a new socialist party, similar to the Green’s vote in the 1989 Euro-elections, is extremely unlikely. However, “a modest triumph”, while a big step forward, would not in itself dramatically alter the course of developments in Scotland. We also have to keep a sense of proportion about the strength of our forces at this stage and those forces which could be attracted to a new party.

In Ireland, for example, the victory of Joe Higgins in Dublin North was an important breakthrough for the left in general and the SP in particular. It has opened up new possibilities, which have to be followed through, but it would be an exaggeration to say it has transformed the political situation in Ireland. Moreover, it should be noted that Joe fought two by-elections before winning the Dail seat in June 1997.

The document starts out from the electoral imperative of avoiding “two or more socialist parties ... stand[ing] in opposition to one another” in the Scottish parliament elections. The elections will use an Additional Seat PR system, which poses a particular tactical problem, which we have to try to overcome. But whilst striving to achieve a unified socialist platform, we cannot be ready to pay any price for this. Forming a new broad socialist party will not, in any case, absolutely guarantee that there will be a unified platform. But even if it did achieve this, it would be too high a price to pay if our political cohesion is eroded. We have to preserve our political and organisational capacity to make gains in the future.

A divided left platform, says the document, would lead to “a unique historical opportunity [being] criminally squandered”. But it is a serious mistake to think that this tactical problem can be solved by proposing a new formation, a broad socialist party with a broad programme, into which the SML would be effectively dissolved.

For instance, the document now speaks of a “ferment within the Scottish Labour Party and the possibility of at least a new breakaway formation emerging over the summer months - especially if it becomes clear that all potential dissidents on the left and so-called ‘nationalist’ wing will be ruthlessly prevented from standing as candidates in the Scottish parliamentary elections”. But do the comrades seriously believe that the proposals for a new SSP outlined in this document will guarantee the inclusion of a significant section of the Scottish LP dissidents in the new party? The primary concern of the lefts is their prospects for gaining Scottish parliamentary and council seats. At the recent [Scottish] LP conference there were votes against the national leadership on Trident and child benefit cuts. But the left of the [Scottish] LP has not waged anything like a consistent, serious campaign against the leadership on key political issues. Their primary concern is seats. If they come to a new SSP, their first question will be, ‘Who are the candidates going to be? What seat am I going to get?’ It is inevitable that there will be a scramble for seats. The formation of a new SSP will not automatically solve this problem, no matter how ‘broad’ the programme or membership requirements.

We have to fight for a united socialist platform in the forthcoming elections. But we cannot gamble the whole future of our organisation on achieving a united platform. If we cannot achieve unity, whether because of political differences or because of opportunist and careerist motives on the part of some of our potential allies we have to be prepared to contest elections with the forces we can bring together.

The document implies that the next round of elections will pose a make-or-break situation. But it would be entirely wrong to bank everything on one throw of the dice. There is an important opportunity before us. We have to weigh up the best way of exploiting it. We should be extremely flexible in our tactics. But we cannot abandon long-term consideration of perspectives, programme and party building - and risk losing past gains. It is not enough to win public positions: we have to be in a position to use them effectively as a platform and link them to our campaigning activity. This depends not merely on our public profile and elected positions, but on the political coherence and fighting capacity of our forces. We have to weigh up the urgent need for a unified platform in these forthcoming elections with a realistic assessment of the way things will develop at a later stage.

It is quite wrong in our view to counterpose the proposal for a new broad socialist party to “turn[ing] back the calendar and return[ing] to the strategy of building an independent Marxist organisation in isolation from the rest of the left”. We do not accept that at any stage in our history we have worked in isolation from the rest of the left. Since the mid-1980s, we have worked with a variety of left and even broader forces in campaigns against the poll tax, against water privatisation, against the Criminal Justice Bill, in the YRE and so on. But even when we were working in the Labour Party, we always worked together with other lefts. In the mid-1970s for instance, we worked in a left caucus with Tony Benn on Labour’s NEC and participated in a joint campaign with other lefts, the ‘Defend the Manifesto Campaign’. Our first anti-Labour Party witch hunt rally at Wembley was called under the name of the ‘Labour Steering Committee Against the Witch hunt’, with speakers including Terry O’Neil (Bakers’ union president) and Ken Livingstone, who was president of the campaign.

The document says that “with conditions beginning to ripen for the emergence of a fifth political party in Scotland based on clear socialist principles, such a strategy [building an independent Marxist organisation] would today be politically incompetent”. Such conditions may well point towards the need to strengthen the SSA or move towards the formation of a new, broad socialist party, with a federal structure which would allow the participation of various organisations, trends etc, including our own. We are certainly not saying it is enough to trundle on as before. But it would be fatal to abandon the task of building an independent Marxist organisation whatever the character of the new formation we decide to work in.

We believe that in this document the comrades are confusing two different questions, two types of party. One is a newly formed revolutionary socialist party, based on the programme and methods of Marxism. The other is a new, broad socialist party which brings together a variety of left forces around a broad socialist programme. The first type, a Marxist revolutionary party, can be formed by the fusion of various forces, not all of which necessarily come from a clear Marxist tradition. The example has been given of the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920. But the CP was formed under the impact of the Russian revolution and it was created as a section of the Third, Communist International, accepting the programme, perspectives and statutes of the International. That clearly provided the starting point for the merging of different forces into a politically unified party on the basis of clear principles. This however is not what the document is actually proposing - it is proposing the formation of a broad socialist party which would not, in reality, be a fusion on the basis of a cohesive programme and method.

In the discussions at the National Committee, the comrades also invoked the tactics of the American Trotskyists in the 1930s in relation to the American Workers Party led by a former preacher AJ Muste. Care must be taken when drawing on experiences of the past to justify tactics today when the conditions are quite different. The AWP was described by James Cannon as “a political menagerie, which had within it every type of political species”, but it was a small, but quite effective, predominantly workers’ party, which had been energetic in industry and amongst the unemployed.

They were “dead earnest about fighting capitalism” and had attracted a body of rank and file militant workers. It was numerically a bit less than the membership of the Communist League, the Trotskyist organisation at that stage.

But the approach of the US Trotskyists was fundamentally different to what is suggested in the Scottish comrades’ document. The merger of two parties led to the creation of a new revolutionary party and not some broad formation, which is suggested in the Scottish comrades’ document. Moreover, support for the Fourth International was clearly stated as a negotiating aim of the Trotskyists in the lead-up to the formation of the party. Cannon states

“for us the question of internationalism is a paramount question, as it has always been for revolutionary Marxists ... It is from this point of view that we raise the question of the Fourth International as a fundamental consideration in the discussion of a new party in America. We take part in the discussions of a new party in America not merely as American revolutionists, but as internationalists, as adherents of the Fourth International” (March 10 1934).

Cannon further writes:

“A party is needed ... an International is needed ... We said at many times, and we underscore it here once more, that the organisation of an American party cannot be separated in any way from the struggle to form a new International, but on the contrary is an inseparable part of that struggle”.

It is true that for tactical reasons, after the fusion, in what was actually a transitional formation even though it declared itself as a revolutionary party, open adherence to the International organisation of the Trotskyists did not take place for a time. Nevertheless, AJ Muste did sign the Open Letter, written by Trotsky and adopted at the International Communist League conference in 1936, advocating the Fourth International.

The circumstances of the 1930s in which fusion of the Musteites and the Trotskyists took place, as well as the way in which the international organisation of the Trotskyists was dealt with, is entirely different to what is now being outlined. The document is not advocating a clear revolutionary party, as the Trotskyists did in the negotiations with the Musteites. They are arguing for a broad party but are prepared to give up the distinct character of our organisation, and the links with the CWI.

The document claims, without seriously examining the question, that the proposed new SSP would be formed on the basis of a clear socialist programme, it would be “based on clear socialist principles”. However, we feel the comrades are taking too much for granted in relation to the programme of a new broad party. Adoption of the SSA Socialist Manifesto statement would give a new party a clear programme which raises radical demands for improving the rights and conditions of the Scottish people. But can it be said that it is yet a “radical socialist programme”? Does it, in reality, call for the “overthrow of capitalism and a new socialist Scotland with an internationalist perspective”? The Socialist Manifesto statement itself states that “this programme takes account of the limitations of parliament” and so “simultaneously prevents our opponents simply dismissing our manifesto as dishonest or utopian - and at the same time allows us to continue to expose the serious shortcomings of a parliament with no control over the welfare state or the wider economy”. But even if it were a radical socialist programme it would not make the party a revolutionary socialist party. There have been many examples in the history of the international workers’ movement where different trends or parties have formally adhered to a socialist programme, even a Marxist programme, but do not by any means consistently base their activity on Marxist strategy and tactics.

We believe that the document is far too sweeping and superficial in referring to the blurring of traditional ideological battle lines which divided the left” in the past. Some of the best groups and individuals may have moved “towards greater acceptance of a political programme which advocates full-blooded socialism combined with workers’ democracy”. But it is too simplistic to say that “in the past, such a programme would have been dismissed as ‘Trotskyism’. We have been able to reach agreement on a campaigning, fighting programme with others on the left, including some from a Stalinist tradition. Nevertheless, the Trotskyist tradition includes fundamentally important ideas on perspectives, revolutionary strategy, strategy on the national questions, tactical methods of struggle and methods of party building which are far from being accepted by many others on the left. It is true to say that in the last period we have adapted our political and organisational methods to the new conditions, but it would be entirely wrong to say that we have abandoned key ideas which were at the heart of the Trotskyist tradition.

The document says that if there is broad agreement among other forces with the principle of proceeding towards the formation of a new party, “in-depth negotiations would be required”. But the document does not begin to even outline the key political criteria which, from the standpoint of our organisation, would be the starting point for such negotiations.

Comrades may argue that, if we were to make acceptance of a rounded-out Marxist position a condition of fusing together in a new organisation, then it would never happen. But this is the case for recognising that, if it is possible to go beyond the stage of an alliance at this stage, it has to be towards a broad party, with a federal structure, which allows freedom for different groups accepting a common platform, including our own organisation. However, when we are by far the biggest force involved in the Alliance, this raises the question, is there, at the moment, sufficient basis for such a development, when most of the troops, the apparatus and the energy would come from our organisation?

The document says that relations between a new formation in Scotland and the SP in England and Wales and the CWI is a “potentially contentious problem”. It says that to make affiliation to the CWI a precondition for any merger “would almost certainly lead to a stalemate”. But if there is a high degree of agreement on a socialist programme, including “a socialist Scotland with an internationalist perspective”, why would it not be possible to campaign for the affiliation of a new SSP to the CWI? In reality, it is evident that most of the other groups who might be might expected to join a new formation would not, at this stage, readily accept the idea of CWI affiliation. But this precisely points to the underlying political differences that still exist. It makes it clear that the prospect of fusing the present left forces into a unified organisation into which our organisation would be dissolved is entirely premature. On the other hand, the question of CWI affiliation would not be immediately posed in a broad socialist organisation of which our organisation was a clearly defined component part.

Dissolving our organisation would be much too high a price to pay for a broad socialist party, which could not at this stage have the character of a revolutionary Marxist party. Although there are some contradictions and ambiguities in the document, it seems quite clear to us that the emphasis is on merging and dissolving our organisation: “The apparatus of SML, including our paper, our finances, our membership, our premises and our full time staff would be transferred to a new SSP”. There would be a complete merging of SML into the new party. The document says that “if any existing groups, including SML, wanted to retain an organisational structure within the new party, they should be able to be accommodated within the constitution of the new party”. Even on this, however, the document says that it is not possible at this stage to say whether it will be necessary to retain a separate SML structure “at least as a transitional arrangement”. Whether or not there is a complete dissolution of SML, will depend partly on “the degree of political and organisational cohesion” in the new party and partly on the “outcome of negotiations with other forces”. Again, it does not say what the criteria for negotiations would be. What would be the minimum conditions for our organisation as far as programme, policy and strategy are concerned?

If the overwhelming bulk of the political and organisational resources for the new party are coming from SML, why should we enter into such a venture if it means the dissolving of our organisation - which, under the conditions proposed, would mean an inevitable dilution of our political identity.

The very next point the document deals with is the question of CWI affiliation. Posed as a precondition, it says, this would lead to stalemate. But the document does not even put the position that SML comrades should advocate affiliation to the CWI. It says that individual members and leaders could “participate in the CWI”. Its also says that “the idea of the new party itself having an open relationship with several or more internationals has been posed in the longer term”. This is astounding. This proposal will cause outrage throughout the International. More than anything else, the comments on the CWI make it clear that the document is really for the dissolution of our organisation and the detachment of our comrades from the CWI.

At the end of the document, it says that “one possible variant” is that “it may be desirable to retain an organised structure through which to conduct relations with England, Wales, Ireland and with the CWI ... Through such a structure, in-depth Marxist political education could be organised perhaps at a city-wide level on a monthly basis, and an analytical/theoretical publication could be produced”. This would effectively reduce our organisation to a study group or at best a caucus within a broad socialist party. Such a caucus would be an exclusive inner core within the party. If it recruited at all, it would be from amongst party activists, not through its direct involvement in activity and struggle.

Such a position would be similar to the grouping formed by ex-members of the British section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International who joined the SLP at the time of its formation and formed (at first secretly) the Fourth International Supporters Caucus. At least they had the justification that they were an extremely small grouplet, with no resources. They were not contributing substantial forces or resources to the SLP, as SML would, according to this proposal, be handing over to a new SSP. Fisc, of course, disintegrated almost as soon as its existence became public knowledge.

The document, however, proposes another variant. “To throw everything into the new party, which would become the vehicle not just for fighting elections and waging campaigns, but for political education and maintaining British-wide and international links”. The document does not even state a preference for the caucus variant over the complete dissolution variant.

Whatever gloss is put on the proposals, the document, in our view, unmistakably argues for the dissolution of our organisation. The suggestion (“it may be desirable”) for our organisation to continue as a grouping within the party would not guarantee the continuation of our present forces as a coherent, organised political force. Even within an alliance or a broad socialist party in which we remained an organised force, there would be enormous pressures on us, posing all the dangers of opportunism. These can only be resisted through a strong political structure, firmly linked to the CWI. There is a real danger that the pressures towards opportunism within a broad party in which we no longer had a coherent formation could be overwhelming. It is not a question of comrades’ intentions, but of the logic of such a formation.

The document states that “despite the considerable success of SSA, SML has suffered to some degree by the lack of single-minded concentration on the task of building the organisation”. Unfortunately, it is quite evident in our view that the enormous demands of campaigning activity, election campaigns and so on, has resulted in quite a weak internal situation, in terms of the development of cadres, organisational structures and finance. If SML merges into a new SSP without commitment to a strong organisation of its own, as part of a federal structure, the internal position would be eroded away very rapidly.

It was argued by Alan at the NC (March 15) that the overwhelming priority now is to bring about a new formation and the task of political differentiation and clarification can take place at a later stage. But how will such clarification take place? Unless, from the start, we maintain an independent revolutionary organisation linked to the CWI, whether in an alliance or a new broad party, there will be no guarantee that our comrades in the future will have the capacity or the forces to achieve a clear political differentiation or clarity.

It has been raised that some EC comrades’ reaction to the Scottish document has been extreme. However, we have stated frankly what we consider to be the real character of the document’s proposals and the extreme dangers which, in our view, they pose. We are extremely alarmed by the proposals in this document, as are members of the International Secretariat and the International Executive Committee who have been told of the proposals. We believe that whatever the intention of the Scottish EC comrades and regardless of some qualifications within the document, this proposal is in reality for the dissolution of our organisation as an effective, independent revolutionary organisation. Revolutionary ideas and revolutionary organisation go hand in hand. We believe that if our independent organisation is dissolved this will unavoidably lead to the dissolution of our political identity, to the erosion of a principled commitment to the perspectives, programme and strategy of revolutionary Marxism. If the proposals are implemented, we would be in serious danger of losing all our past gains. We therefore believe that before any decisions are taken on these proposals, there should be a full discussion both on an all-Britain and an International level.