Socialist Party in crisis

Too high a price to pay

Former Scottish Militant Labour member Tom Delargy gives his views on SML’s break with the Socialist Party and its embrace of nationalism

I got a couple of documents through the post this morning: one by Alan McCombes on Scottish independence; the other by Alan Green on the proposed Scottish Socialist Party.

The first goes to extraordinary lengths to try to prove that he (Alan McCombes) does not believe you can have socialism in one country. But his support for the slogan of an independent socialist Scotland undermines all these protestations. I would like to be generous and explain the glaring contradiction by suggesting that Alan (like Lenin in On cooperation and his critique of the slogan of a socialist united states of Europe) is using the word ‘socialism’ in two distinct senses. I have been hoping that he was merely emulating the Bolshevik leader’s use of the term ‘socialism’ as a synonym for workers’ power, a workers’ state or the dictatorship of the proletariat. But, in the two infamous articles where Lenin resorted to this sloppy shorthand, the idea of socialism in one country was so much anathema to genuine Marxists (Lenin’s target audience) there was no real prospect of his being misunderstood.

Sadly, 70 plus years of Stalinist distortions have catapulted us into an entirely different political context. The Stalinists (and social democrats as well, of course) have seen to it that we can no longer afford the luxury of such shorthand - not unless we are deliberately trying to confuse the issue. I would very much like to uphold this generous interpretation of Alan’s inconsistencies. This is, however, looking less and less credible.

Alan’s latest document has convinced me that even if we can say in unison, ‘You can’t have socialism in one country’, we mean two very different things by these words.

As Lenin wrote in State and revolution, states, even the healthiest of workers’ states, constitute special bodies of armed men separate from society as a whole. As such, they are an expression of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. Socialism, on the other hand, is by definition (if you are a Marxist) a classless society. As such, it can only be born as states (workers’ states) wither away - a process which can clearly not be completed so long as a single capitalist state remains intact on this planet. While this is the socialist vision of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, it appears no longer to be the socialist vision of Alan McCombes. His long-term goal is now limited to a confederation of “independent socialist states”. Confederation, let us not forget, was the “international relationship” the slave states of the American south went to war to defend. More to the point, Alan’s long-term goal is precisely the one Josef Stalin contrasted to that of Leon Trotsky and every genuine Marxist. This is a long-term goal he should immediately rethink.

John Maclean, whose good name is being dragged in to support Alan’s position (effectively this great revolutionary is being used as a reference), was, unlike Alan, a thoroughly orthodox Marxist vis-à-vis the ultimate goal. In a previous article (Scottish Socialist Voice February 6 1998), Alan came very close to admitting that their respective attitudes to the Scottish question had only superficial similarity. Alan wrote:

“Even while fighting for an independent socialist Scotland, Maclean called for one single all-Britain trade union - and even expressed the conviction that over generations, ‘inter-marriage will wipe out all national differences and the world will be as one’.”

This is very basic stuff, but Alan’s use of the word “even” suggests he disagrees. I remember thinking at the time that Alan was subliminally challenging Maclean on this fundamental point, implying he was being childishly utopian or ‘perversely’ internationalist. All he was doing, however, was indicating one of the mechanisms by which nationalities will wither away in the transition to a socialist society. Given the immense technological achievements which have taken place in the intervening 70 years, mass migration and the continuous movement of individuals across the globe (not to mention telecommunications technology) are going to represent far more important mechanisms by which these historical anachronisms will bite the dust. 

But Alan’s criticism of Maclean is far more substantial than this. He just cannot get his head round the orthodox Marxist position. He knows that one consequence of his doing so would be to cut himself off from the leftwing SNP members he has been trying so hard to recruit. Far, far to the left of Blair though they are, they will not be persuaded to jettison their vision of an independent capitalist Scotland if its independent socialist alternative is presented (as Maclean presented it) as a transitory stepping stone on the path to an international classless society. They will not bargain away their ‘historic nation’ before it even comes into existence.

The price Alan is willing to pay in order to establish a relationship with these radical workers is far too high. Not for one second do we have to trade our socialist perspective for their nationalist one in order to capture their votes. Given a straight choice between Alex Salmond’s party and ours, many can be persuaded to opt for a pro-worker, pro-common ownership party - even one with the most radical internationalist perspective. I am not even suggesting we specifically deny them access to the SSA. Not at any rate if they genuinely want to put an end to the rule of capital. If, on the other hand, they just find our candidate selection procedure less arduous than the SNP’s, then they should be shown the door.

When I joined SML, I expected Alan McCombes to be playing a leading role in converting leftwing nationalists. I am genuinely disappointed that he has thrown in the towel. However much Alan would like to deny it, he has certainly embraced a version of nationalism. Comparing him to Pilsudski is, I would argue, unfair.

But I think Peter Taaffe might agree with me that he is playing a role not dissimilar to that played by Andreas Nin. Just like the one-time leader of the Spanish Trotskyists, Alan has taken it upon himself to wind up ‘his’ section of a Trotskyist International. His international comrades were kept in the dark while he conspired with other ‘patriots’ to dissolve ‘his’ organisation.

Alan has, apparently, forgotten that the Third International of Lenin and Trotsky recognised, from day one, that all national sections of the International had to be subordinate to the decisions of the world organisation. The formally ‘Marxist’ Second International collapsed into national chauvinism precisely because it neglected to do this. In order to keep some leading members of the SSA on board, Alan has, apparently, been persuaded to cut SML adrift from his international comrades.

If the debate on the Scottish question was not a choice between nationalism or socialism, but merely about determining the best strategy for leading the working class to power in Scotland and elsewhere, then Alan would have consulted the CWI rather than presenting them with a fait accompli. His warning to all non-Scots (and especially CWI members) to butt out of ‘our’ decision-making process bodes ill for the future. If he proves successful in completely eradicating all CWI influence in the SSA, I fear he will be tempted to try to liberate ‘us Scots’ from other pernicious influences.

As he has been aware for some time, I have been concerned that some SSA members will seek to split the trade unions along nationalist lines. Alan has strenuously denied this, and perhaps I am being unfair to him.

Nevertheless, I no longer trust Alan as implicitly as I once did, and for the following reason. On the day after Paisley branch selected its candidate for the by-election, I got a phone call from him. He complained that, as a result of a letter I wrote to the SP leadership, he had been forced to endure an hour-long phone call from Mike Waddington, interrogating him about my suspicion that SML was on course to liquidate itself.

Alan attempted to reassure me in precisely the manner he did Mike Waddington: there was not a shred of truth in the accusation, and I should be ashamed of myself for wasting the SP leadership’s time with such scaremongering. My punishment for refusing to recognise that SML’s autonomy stretches quite as far as Alan would like was to be sent to Coventry and excluded from SML branch meetings and aggregates. Some SML members apparently got carried away and thought they could go so far as to exclude me from SSA public meetings!

If the CWI wants to put an end to centrifugal tensions threatening to tear it apart, it should take measures to protect whistleblowers, and not allow their defence of the integrity of the International to be silenced by those who would liquidate its various sections. This being what happened in my case.

In a full year as an SML member, I was not informed about a single branch meeting nor aggregate, yet both did take place. Had I only personal experience to go by, I would suggest to Peter Taaffe that the threat to the CWI section in Scotland was less of liquidation than of evaporation. However, despite treatment which I think is the very opposite of comradely, I have not the slightest intention of calling on anyone to wage an unprincipled war on either the majority or minority of the imminent split in SML. Neither side should withdraw from the SSA nor attempt to expel one another. This crucial weapon of ours, the SSA, has to continue to be big enough to embrace both the winners and the losers in this battle and to bring on board the SLP, SWP and excluded dissidents from all these parties.

Just because I do not believe Alan McCombes ‘changed his mind’ between last October and March about dissolving SML, just because I am convinced he deliberately lied to me, and to Mike Waddington, is no reason to do a runner and call for the setting up of a pure socialist alternative. However, while neither the winners nor losers of the liquidation battle should leave or be expelled from the SSA, all socialists, in England and Wales just as much as those in Scotland, need to examine where we are going.

In the letter in which I predicted (accurately, as it has turned out) imminent plans to liquidate the CWI section in Scotland, I made one other far more serious prediction. I interpreted remarks by Alan Green, SSA national secretary, remarks made at a national council meeting last October, as an advocacy of splitting the trade unions along nationalist lines. Alan McCombes was clearly livid with me for daring to suggest such a thing. I am not arguing that either Alan McCombes or Alan Green deliberately want to do this. I do however have genuine anxiety that they are playing around with formulations which are liable to lead inexorably in this direction. I have been waiting for Alan McCombes to put pen to paper to repeat Alan Green’s expression before attempting to explore its implications. I have waited for this because I do not want to be accused, as I already have been, of putting words into people’s mouths. In his latest document, Alan McCombes has gone on record calling for national “autonomy” for the trade unions. To quote in full, he calls for “the maintenance of existing all-Britain trade union structures, with greater autonomy for the Scottish sections of British trade unions”.

The first half of this sentence seems to destroy my argument. The problem is with the second half. This formulation is, or appears to be, self-contradictory. Neither Alan McCombes in this document nor Alan Green in his contribution to last October’s national council has been able to clarify what they mean by “autonomy”. Is it the kind of autonomy the SML executive won for themselves prior to declaring UDI?

Alan McCombes has tried in his latest document to pretend that the dictionary definition of ‘independence’ is not a synonym for ‘separate’. I would suggest he gets a better dictionary, one which informs him that ‘autonomy’ means self-government. What we need to know, but are not being told, is what degree of self-governance is being proposed. One person’s autonomy is another person’s split, and quantitative shifts in the degree of autonomy will lead, inevitably, to split - as Peter Taaffe has learnt to his cost.

If Alan was defending the autonomy of militant sections of workers against the dead hand of conservative bureaucracy, then I would be the first to support him. But union autonomy in terms of geography (whether national or local) is not necessarily progressive. To suggest that any section of our class is permanently in advance of other sections borders on racism. Such reactionary prejudices only play into the hands of our class enemies.

Mick McGahey used national autonomy to justify steel workers crossing picket lines at Ravenscraig during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-5 (as did the area leadership in Wales). Nottingham miners used autonomy to justify crossing picket lines during the same strike. Arthur Scargill may have made some mistakes in recent years, but he was 100% right when he argued that those men had no right to vote others out of a job. But if you judge struggles in terms of geographical autonomy, then the flying pickets from Yorkshire were anti-democratic.

To call for autonomy for “Scottish sections” of unions would inevitably lead to a plethora of such petty and nasty conflicts. The SNP leaders would have a field day. They have already revealed their true colours when they denounced ‘English’ trade unions for strangling job opportunities in Dundee a decade or so ago. For these narrow nationalists, the multi-national giant, Ford, were the good guys for promising to bring much needed jobs to ‘our’ country; TGWU leaders were the bad guys for trying to defend wages and condition of their ‘English’ members.

Alan Green and Alan McCombes have to learn to appreciate that any attempt to play with the idea of autonomy on grounds of geography rather than on grounds of militancy can only lead to beauty contests with our exploiters as the judges. If we were to think of going down this road, we would only encourage English and Welsh trade unionists to play the same game. And we would set in motion a process whereby workers in Glasgow turned against those in Edinburgh, and workers in one factory turned against those next door.

I am not for one second suggesting that either Alan McCombes or Alan Green intend any such thing; it is however where their position logically leads.