Peter Taaffe’s ‘short thesis’ is sad really. The Socialist Party general secretary has already lost the theoretical fight to Scottish Militant Labour by agreeing to its formation in the first place - conceding the fundamental principle of ‘one state, one party’. That was the Scottish turn, part one. Now he is reduced to fighting the concomitant proposal for a nationalist breakaway - Scottish turn, part two - with essentially technical arguments.
Thus, in the very first line of his intervention, Taaffe speaks blithely of the SML as “an autonomous part of the Socialist Party” (see p7). This was the fatal concession Taaffe had already made to the growth of Scottish nationalism and its reflection in the ranks of his own organisation. He explained at the time that “the decision to go for autonomy in Scotland, on financial questions, but also on other organisational issues, arose from the objective situation in Scotland itself. The growth in a distinct national consciousness requires a change in the form of organisation adopted … the development of national consciousness means that the form of organisation appropriate to the rest of Britain is no longer appropriate to Scotland.” Yet he warned that “if the arrangements adopted between the National Committee/Executive Committee and the Scottish organisation were applied now to the rest of Britain it would mean the collapse of the national centre” (P Taaffe ‘A discussion on democratic centralism’, Militant Labour Members Bulletin No16, p6).
Clearly, his opportunist sop had nothing in common with a Leninist understanding of ‘autonomy’ within a revolutionary organisation. This means that
“in questions specifically concerning the proletariat of a given race, nation or district … [it] is left to the discretion of the organisation concerned to determine the specific demands to be advanced in pursuance of the common programme, and the methods of agitation to be employed. The party as a whole, its central institutions, lay down the common fundamental principles of programme and tactics; as to the different methods of carrying out these principles in practice and agitating for them they are laid down by the various Party organisations subordinate to centre” (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Vol 17, Moscow 1977, p95).
Thus, constituent elements of the party must have autonomy to apply the programme concretely. However,
“in matters pertaining to the struggle against … the bourgeoisie … as a whole, we must act as a single and centralised militant organisation, have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality, a proletariat whose unity is cemented by the continual joint solution of problems of theory and practice, of tactics and organisation; we must not set up organisations that would march separately, each along its own track; we must not weaken the force of our offensive by breaking up into numerous independent political parties” (my emphasis, VI Lenin CW Vol 6, Moscow 1977, p333).
Taaffe’s attempt to confine the ‘autonomy’ granted to Scotland to “financial” and other “organisational issues” was clearly a philistine attempt at damage limitation. I noted when reviewing the SP’s perspectives for 1997 that Taaffe failed to even mention Scotland (Weekly Worker January 23 1997). The political - not “organisational” - implication was clear. Scottish issues were to be dealt with by the Scottish comrades, not the all-Britain organisation. Taaffe had buckled before Scottish nationalism.
His thesis takes as given that the SP is blessed with “a clear revolutionary programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics”. Evidently all untrue - except in the doublespeak world of centrism, where left reformism is revolutionary and state nationalisation is socialism. But even if it were true that Taaffe’s What we stand for is a revolutionary, not a reformist programme, how could we explain SP’s course towards fragmentation and - in the case of SML - liquidation into left Scottish nationalism?
Of course, it could be that constituent elements of the party are breaking from its ‘programme’ and the methodological approach that informs it. After all, this is a hard period for partisans of our class - Taaffe’s blather about the “red 90s” notwithstanding.
In fact the present crisis situation actually represents the culmination of tendencies immanent in the SP’s politics. Taaffe - despite himself - illustrates that, while his organisation is in the process of disintegrating around him, this disastrous method - of impressionistic and opportunist adaptation - remains constant.
Thus, he writes of ‘democratic centralism’ and manages - as seems to be the man’s unique gift - to get the worst of all possible worlds.
He talks of the “new generation” since the collapse of Stalinism in the 1990s that reject anything that “smacked of ‘authoritarianism’ and which gave the appearance of being undemocratic”. Yet while these young people evidence a certain “hostility” to traditional forms of working class organisation, “particularly if it has a ‘top-down’ approach”, they also had a “preparedness to discuss ideas”.
Yet, in the very same document, the man defines ‘democratic centralism’ as “the fullest possible internal discussion and debate … and … the carrying out of commonly arrived at decisions by the whole organisation” - my emphasis.
This dichotomy between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and the subsequent treatment of political questions as a matter of conspiracy has led many advanced workers and youth to view revolutionary organisations in much the same way as they look on religious cults. For example, the debate between SML and the SP is a vital one for the whole workers’ movement, with direct ramifications for the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales. Yet it is regarded by Taaffe as purely an internal affair of the SP and SML. Without the intervention of the Weekly Worker, advanced workers or the “new generation” that Taaffe is so excited about (the one that so enjoys the opportunity to “discuss ideas”, you’ll remember) would remain totally unaware of the dispute until it was over and its results could be spoon-fed to them in a blandly digestible fudge. We treat advanced workers and youth as serious people capable of reading opposing views in the same newspaper without becoming “confused”. The SP patronisingly treats them as children.
Taaffe may have a garbage method, but no one can reproach him for a lack of consistency. The mood of this new generation tends towards a “‘spontaneous’ approach”, a certain ‘looseness’ politically. In response to this - and the smear campaigns of the capitalists - Taaffe casually suggests dumping the term ‘democratic centralism’.
Now, I am all in favour of what the SP calls “the need to analyse the new features of this period … to elaborate in a fresh way programme, policies, political names, slogans …” (‘Clarification of proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party’ Members Bulletin No28, April 1998, p31). But this reflects something rather more, of course. Without a revolutionary programme as a compass, SP adapts opportunistically to the political milieu in which it finds itself - be that Labourism, feminism, black separatism or Scottish nationalism.
This is why an anarcho-libertarian spirit has “undoubtedly spilled over at certain stages into the ranks” of the SP itself, and thereby generates toleration for the Scottish nationalism that is threatening to fragment the organisation as a whole - Taaffe of course bears prime responsibility.
He hypocritically and technocratically tells his comrades that it is “absolutely fatal” to take measures that result in
“dissolving … the distinct character of our revolutionary party … at all times the consciousness of a separate revolutionary organisation must be engendered in the minds of our members by the leadership … it is essential that we meet separately and regularly, preferably on a weekly basis, to discuss the way forward, to collect dues and to recruit to our party.”
Yet the ‘distinctive’ character of a revolutionary organisation cannot be defined nor defended through the technicalities of dues collection and “separate” meetings. The need for separate organisation flows from a programme that expresses proletarian independence, the distinct revolutionary interests of the working class as a whole. Unless the SP’s drift towards the precipice can be fought on this level by elements of the party, the abyss beckons.