Capitulation to nationalism

This Members Bulletin document, ‘In defence of the revolutionary party’, is the Socialist Party EC’s reply to Scottish Militant Labour’s proposals to liquidate itself into a Scottish Socialist Party. Having gone along with SML’s national socialist trajectory, the SP now objects to the consequences of an “independent socialist Scotland”. The result is a travesty of Marxism

1. None of the arguments put forward in the SML Executive’s ‘For a bold step forward’ (or in further documents which we have just received) convince us that what the SML EC comrades are advocating for perspectives, programme and strategy in relation to their proposal for a new Scottish Socialist Party will assure the continued strengthening of the forces of Marxism in Scotland or effectively prepare the way for the development of a mass revolutionary party. Nor, in our view, will their proposals assure the development of an effective section of the CWI [Committee for a Workers Intenational] in Scotland. This is why we are writing ‘In defence of the revolutionary party’.


7. We recognise the outstanding achievements of comrades in Scotland, both through Militant and SML, and we also recognise the tremendous potential for Marxism which will open up in Scotland over the next few years. We believe that the call for an independent socialist Scotland can position the forces of Marxism at the forefront of the struggle for self-determination, linking the fight for independence with the fight for a socialist transformation of society. However, we will only strengthen the forces of Marxism and prepare the way for a mass revolutionary party on the basis of programme, perspectives and strategy which will measure up to the complex processes which will unfold. For reasons which we explain in this and other documents, we believe the proposals being put forward by the SML Executive Committee are in serious danger of throwing away past gains and especially throwing away the enormous gains that can potentially be made in the next period. Our criticisms of the SML EC’s proposals are not “entirely negative”, as they claim. In our letter of April 2 (‘Clarifications of proposals for an SSP’), we proposed two alternative strategic options: Option 1 - the relaunch of SML as the Scottish Socialist Party, drawing in SSA members and new forces; and Option 2 - a relaunch of the Scottish Socialist Alliance as a Scottish Socialist Party, with SML (under a new name) becoming a component of the new formation. Our letter explains the strategic and tactical factors which, in our opinion, would apply to the two options. Our main concern is the need to conserve the core of Marxist cadres we have built up over a long period of time and to adopt strategy and tactics which will allow us to strengthen the forces and mass influence of revolutionary Marxism. We believe that the SML EC are making a serious mistake in rejecting both these options in favour of a “hybrid” strategy.


33. The question has been raised implicitly in the SML EC document and explicitly in some of the discussions: Is it still possible, in this post-Stalinist period, to build a revolutionary party of the type envisaged by Lenin and Trotsky? The collapse of the Stalinist regimes not only discredited the Stalinist caricature of the ‘socialist society’, but also discredited the grotesque totalitarian caricature of the revolutionary party. For instance, the concept of ‘democratic centralism’, which in the hands of the ruling bureaucracy became in reality ‘bureaucratic centralism’, which turned the party into an instrument of totalitarian rule, means that the term can no longer be used. We still defend the essential features of democratic centralism, but it is now better to use the term, ‘democratic unity’, emphasising that the democratic rights of members must be safeguarded at all times. (seeShort thesis on the revolutionary party’ by Peter Taaffe, Members Bulletin April 28 1998).

34. ‘For a bold step forward’ itself poses the question: “What is a revolutionary party in the present era?” But nowhere does it explicitly address this issue (though the SML EC’s subsequent proposals make it clear that they are advocating a broad party rather than a revolutionary party). Clearly, it is not a question of whether or not the party includes the term ‘revolutionary’ in its name, at least in the context of Britain in the present period. Under present conditions, as we have explained elsewhere, it would be a mistake to use the name ‘revolutionary’ or to advocate ‘revolution’ in our programme as opposed to advocating ‘a socialist transformation of society’. This is an issue of presentation, not of political substance. However, the Scottish document states that “we believe there are fundamental differences of approach” involved in this debate. We would ask the Scottish comrades: is this a difference about the possibility in this period of constructing a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism? During the debate at the SML conference in Glasgow on March 28-29, it was raised that, since the collapse of Stalinism, it was no longer possible to build a revolutionary party of the type envisaged in the past. Does the SML Executive take this position?


45. As we have made clear in our letter (‘Clarification of proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party’, April 2), we are not opposed in principle to “the unification of existing forces of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (and, as far as possible, other socialist forces) into a more tightly-knit and cohesive party structure. What we do say, however, is that we have to be clear on the character of such a new formation, In our view, the strategy being proposed by the Scottish Executive (that is, the transformation of the SSA into a new Scottish Socialist Party, with SML merging into it) would produce a broad organisation, not a revolutionary party. Nothing in the SML EC’s ‘For a bold step forward’ convinces us otherwise.

46. The comrades are arguing that the new formation they are proposing would be “a hybrid organisation containing elements of a revolutionary party and elements of ‘some broad formation’.” But, in our view, the new formation would only become a revolutionary party if the “elements of a revolutionary party” within it constituted a politically cohesive, organised Marxist tendency actively working to win the other elements to the project of building a revolutionary party, on the basis of support for a Marxist programme, commitment to building a party based on the principles of democratic unity, and affiliation to our International. This would be viable only as a short-term strategy, as was the case with the US Trotskyists merging with the Musteite AWP [American Workers Party]. Cannon and Trotsky did not set out to build a new “hybrid” or “transitional” party. Their overriding aim was to transform the new formation into a revolutionary party as quickly as possible. They adopted the strategy because they believed that it could be carried through to success in a short period.

47. The SML EC’s document, however, says that there would be a “drawing together of our existing internal organisation and the SSA”: that is, the merging of our revolutionary forces with broader elements. Moreover, this is clearly not envisaged as a short-term strategy. The SML EC comrades accept that “we are still in a preparatory period rather than a revolutionary period. Consequently, the construction of a party of socialist revolution will be a more protracted process.” Such a hybridisation, with the effective dissolution of our organisation into a broader, “transitional” organisation, would inevitably result in a qualitative dilution of our revolutionary tendency.


55. It is not feasible, in our view, to envisage the construction of a “hybrid” or “transitional” party, combining features of a revolutionary party with those of a broader party, over a prolonged period of time. A revolutionary party has a number of essential features. There is room for flexibility of organisational form. But if the essential political features of our organisation are diluted by being merged into a broader formation then that new formation will not have the character of a revolutionary party. It is not a question of the comrades’ intentions, or of their combined knowledge and experience: it is a question of the political logic of what they are proposing.

56. The essential features of a revolutionary party, in our view, are the following: it must be based on a revolutionary programme; it has to be organised on the genuine principles of democratic centralism, reformulated as democratic unity; it has to combine active (non-sectarian) involvement in the class struggle with the development of Marxist cadres to form the revolutionary core of the party; and it has to be an integral part of an international revolutionary party, currently the CWI. Depending on the conditions it operates under, a revolutionary party may be a separate organisation or it may be a distinct ‘open’ organisation within a broader formation. Another variant is that of a distinct ‘entryist’ tendency within a mass social democratic or Stalinist party, a tactic followed under various conditions in the past but generally not applicable in this period.

57. The Scottish EC, however, is arguing that SML should be merged with the SSA, that the entire apparatus, paper, etc of SML should be handed over to the new SSP (‘Initial proposals’, para 22), and that SML branches will be merged into SSA branches - and they are arguing that the new formation will still be a revolutionary party. They say that the majority position of the existing SML leadership and its “150 years’ collective experience of the Marxist movement” will prevent any dilution of the SSP’s revolutionary character. Moreover, they argue that “a core of experienced and tested Marxist activists will be capable of influencing and guiding the broad membership of this new party...”


61. The argument of the SML EC is that the programme of the SSA is a revolutionary programme, that the SSA programme will be adopted by the new SSP and therefore the new SSP will be a revolutionary party. We do not accept this logic. Even if it can be assumed that the new SSP, involving new forces, will virtually automatically accept the SSA programme, that in itself will not guarantee the revolutionary character of the new party. A transitional programme drawn up for one conjuncture (as we have explained in our letter, ‘Clarification of proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party’, April 2, para 15) does not constitute the full programme of the revolutionary party, which is a body of ideas and the accumulated experience of the Trotskyist movement. This is not a question of seeking to erect ideological walls for potential new recruits to jump over. But it is necessary to recognise that winning broad, new forces to a transitional programme is not the same as winning their adherence to the programme of Trotskyism.


80. If the new SSP is conceived as a revolutionary party (a transformation of SML, drawing in SSA and other forces), then part of the process should be comrades campaigning for immediate affiliation to the CWI. If a decision on affiliation had to be left for a short period after the founding conference, for say six months or a year, to allow time to convince the whole membership, nothing would be wrong with that, provided the aim was affiliation in a short period of time.

81. If, however, the strategy adopted is to transform the SSA into a new SSP, which, in our view, would unavoidably be a broader party, then we would have to maintain a CWI organisation within the new formation. In the SML EC’s second document, the comrades say more definitely that one option would be “forming within a SSP an organised formation (whether it be called a tendency, a platform, a society or whatever) which would be part of the CWI, which would promote the ideas, literature, etc of the CWI, which would ensure the continuation of at least the existing level of financial support for the CWI and which would organise meetings, etc with CWI speakers.” This goes a bit further than the formulations in the ‘Initial proposals’ document, but, in our view, are still totally inadequate. Nevertheless, we would emphasise the need for a CWI group to have its own democratic structure, regular branch meetings, its own resources, full-timers, a members’ bulletin and a public journal. It should actively recruit to the CWI group and campaign within the SSP for SSP affiliation to CWI.


96. The most disturbing argument put forward against calling for immediate CWI affiliation, however, is the following:

“At this stage, the CWI does not possess the authority in Scotland that SML possesses; nor does the Socialist Party. For a layer of activists who work closely with SML there remains a residue of suspicion of London-based political leaders. This in turn partly reflects attitudes and, in some cases perhaps, even prejudices - linked to the national question - which extend into all sections of society in Scotland.”

97. The first question to ask is: why does the CWI not possess the authority in Scotland that SML possesses, when SML is part of the CWI and should, as part of its work, be building the influence of CWI?


101. We believe that the Socialist Party (and previously Militant and Militant Labour), along with the International Executive of CWI, which frequently discussed Scotland, has consistently adopted a sensitive attitude to the national question in Scotland. In the 1970s we supported the call for devolution, demanding a Scottish assembly with real economic and social powers, against many on the left (including some within our own ranks) who opposed this as a concession to nationalism - which did not prevent some of them later switching to a nationalist position. In 1991-92 we argued strongly in favour of the Scottish Turn against opposition within our own ranks. This was a strategic reorientation towards an independent organisation, SML. The tactical turn recognised the special position in Scotland, especially the militant mood of the Scottish working class, reflecting both the intensified social crisis and the growing demand for autonomy or independence for Scotland. The leadership of Militant Labour took the initiative of proposing that SML should be an autonomous unit within the all-British organisation.

102. We have continually discussed the national question with the Executive of SML. In recent months there has been a discussion within SML and the Socialist Party, and we both agree that developments now pose the need for us to raise the demand for an independent socialist Scotland. The EC of the Socialist Party, however, has raised several points which we consider are insufficiently developed in SML’s material. Briefly they are as follows: despite the currently growing support for independence, the mood of workers and other strata can fluctuate as events develop, and perspectives have to take account of this. Under the Blair government, British capitalism has conceded a Scottish parliament, but the British ruling class will ruthlessly resist steps towards independence, and it would be a mistake to assume that independence will be achieved in the next few years. While we have to fight for independence, linking it to a policy for the socialist transformation of society, we have to warn workers of the severe limitations of independence under capitalism and combat inevitable illusions. We will be at the forefront of the struggle for self-determination, while at the same time combating nationalism and any national prejudices within the workers’ movement.

103. It is imperative, because of the national question, for the leadership of both CWI and the Socialist Party to show great sensitivity to national sensitivities in Scotland. On the other hand, we believe it is vital for comrades in Scotland. While fighting for an appropriate programme for self-determination, to fight against nationalism and national prejudices.