Alan McCombes: happy to be egged on by Socialist Outlook

Fiddling while Rome burns

Around the left

All those committed to workers’ unity and genuine socialism should be dismayed by recent events in Scotland. The decision of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, taken at its annual conference on June 20, to liquidate itself into the Scottish Socialist Party clearly represents a shift to the right - not least in that it confirms Scottish Militant Labour’s embrace of narrow nationalism.

But despair or pessimism is not the proper response. The experience of the SSA can ultimately be used to help cohere and buttress the revolutionary left - if we learn the lessons. Why do we need a party? What is socialism? How should the united front tactic be employed? What about election work? All these fundamental questions are posed by the SSA’s demise as a vehicle for united struggle. Communist politics can make good out of bad. Unprincipled and opportunist politics just stumble from disaster to disaster.

Thus, the “democratic, pluralist, multi-party, feminist ecologist” Socialist Outlook - to quote from its ‘where we stand’ column - has an attitude to developments in the SSA which has more in common with liberalism than working class principle. Unfortunately, Socialist Outlook is a monthly. The June issue is all we have available. Nevertheless, its political trajectory is not too difficult to fathom, nor its intentions.

In the article ‘Time for a new workers’ party in Scotland?’, comrade Dave Hudson offers his views on the battle - now convincingly won by Alan McCombes - between the SP (England and Wales) and the ‘left’ Braveheartian SML. The introduction to comrade Hudson’s article states:

“The SP and SML, its Scottish organisation, are engaged in a major discussion about launching a new workers’ party in Scotland. This discussion is important for the whole of the socialist left in Britain, including the revolutionary Marxist organisations. Socialist Outlook comments on this discussion because of the important issues it raises for the left within a perspective of recomposition of the workers’ movement. Also, because the outcome of these discussions will in the short term materially affect the development of the class struggle not only in Scotland, but across the British state.”

Fine sentiments. However, comrade Hudson adopts a sanguine, if not enthusiastic, attitude to the liquidation of the SSA and the nationalist birth of the SSP. The comrade appears to think it is a potentially positive development. The article ends up betraying his, and SO’s, inability to grasp the real political issues.

Comrade Hudson presents us with a summary of the current state of play, as SO sees it. It is interesting to observe the ideas of SP/SML, as refracted through the political - and sympathetic - lens of an SO loyalist. Comrade Hudson writes:

“The controversy in the SP concerns the proposition made by SML that, under today’s conditions, with the present development of the SSA, a new mass workers’ party to the left of Labour is both needed and can be built (‘a small mass workers’ party’). This is presented as a qualitative development which would supersede the present collection of left groups and tendencies in Scotland.

“The political framework of the SML comrades is determined by three features. First, is the existence of a rightwing and bourgeois Labour government and Labour Party [SO called for a Labour vote last May, as it always does - DP], both dominated by Blairism. The Blairite phenomenon represents for them a sharp break from social democracy, and has transformed the class character of the party from one based on and closely linked to the working class, to one based directly on the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The comrades of the SP sometimes say that this process of bourgeoisification is already complete, although this is sometimes left unclear.

“The second feature they raise is the Scottish national question and devolution, and the preparations for elections by PR to a Scottish parliament, scheduled for 1999. This scenario, argues SML, represents a significant political opening if a credible left party existed that could seize the opportunity. Third, there are higher levels of class consciousness and mobilisation in Scotland than exist in England. This is in part due to the entwining of socialist issues and the struggle for national self-determination. Linked to this are the more advanced levels of socialist organisation, particularly through the SSA.

“The specific combination of these three features (to which the comrades would add the global crisis of both Stalinism and social democracy) creates the opportunity for a new breakthrough in Scotland. Already SML has had some preliminary and informal discussions about launching a new party, possibly called the SSP, with various prominent individuals and tendencies within the SSA. They say in their text, Initial proposals for a new Scottish Socialist Party, that there are other socialist organisations they would like to approach for discussions about the formation of a new socialist party. These include the Communist Party of Scotland; the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, and socialists within the Labour Party, the SNP and the Green Party.”

So, what does comrade Hudson himself actually think of all this? In a nutshell, he gives the thumbs-up to the McCombesite project:

“We in Socialist Outlook are fully persuaded that the situation in Scotland is more politically advanced than in England or Wales, and with greater opportunities for socialists for broadly the same reasons that the SML outline. Allowing for some exaggeration by the comrades, we also believe that a serious electoral challenge by a class struggle or revolutionary party would be very significant and would undoubtedly change the political terrain on the left across the whole British state” (my emphasis).

SO, according to comrade Hudson, is “fully persuaded” that the creation of a reformist-nationalist SSP is a step forward. How foolish. The SSP will certainly “change the political terrain on the left across the whole British state”, as the comrade correctly predicts. But it will not be quite in the way comrade Hudson hopes or expects. That is guaranteed.

Confronted by an urgent political problem, which poses all manner of dangers for the working class, the comrade goes into ‘philosophical’ agony instead. Hudson is so intent on trying to squeeze the SP/SML/SSA and the Scottish question in general into his Trotskyist categories that he does not appear to notice the reactionary nationalist aim of the SSP project - the chimera of an “an independent socialist Scotland”. Comrade Hudson asks:

“Do the SML comrades envisage that this new party will be a transitional formation/party, a kind of proto-party? In other words, will it be founded on a limited action programme, of a type discussed by Trotsky in 1935, but with the aim of its transformation, through a common experience and debate over a short period, into a revolutionary party? Or do they think the new party, which they hope will include the broad forces listed above, will be a revolutionary party from its foundation?

“If it is the former, then it seems to us incumbent on the revolutionary Marxists to maintain some organisational and political independence within it, to wage the necessary political struggle. If it is the latter, then it has to be shown that the party is founded on a revolutionary programme - a very difficult task in this political conjuncture, even in Scotland. To put it another way. The one principle that is absolutely central is that the organisational dissolution of the revolutionary Marxists into a new party first requires the political conquest of a revolutionary programme. Or, it must be founded with the expectation, due to the rapid evolution of the forces involved, that such a programme will be adopted in the short term (this was the  scenario in the USA in the late 1930s). If, on the other hand the basis of unity of the new party is a more limited, ‘class struggle’ or ‘action programme’ (because of the diverse character of the forces involved - or are likely to become involved in the future), and therefore requiring considerable further development before it adopts a revolutionary programme (ie, similar to the 1938 Transitional programme), which seems most likely, then organisation remains essential. To genuinely dissolve under these conditions would be nothing less than the liquidation of the Marxist programme.”

He continues:

“Organisation within a broad leftwing socialist party could take the form of a recognised tendency or faction, legitimated by the party constitution. Office resources could still be handed over to the new party as a gesture of goodwill, but the Marxists must retain the capacity and the right, if it becomes necessary, to transform themselves into a faction to fight for the leadership of the party - with the recognised consequence that if it fails, it may split, taking what it can with it. This understanding should be transparent and above board in the negotiations” (my emphasis).

A clear case of fiddling while Rome burns and the SSA bites the nationalist dust. The SSP’s ‘programme’ is a living negation of the universalist project of Marxism - only a political illiterate could fail to see that. Naturally, we recognise that SO is falling behind events in Scotland. Perhaps, when confronted by the grisly reality of the SSP, it will come good. Perhaps the next issue of Socialist Outlook will bend the stick the other way. But for now comrade Hudson - and presumably SO - is content to embrace the ‘socialist’ facade of SSP and ignore its essentially anti-socialist nature.

Comrade Hudson goes on to inform us that the

“programme of the SSA [Charter for a socialist Scotland] is neither a revolutionary programme nor a transitional programme like the 1938 Programme; it is an ‘action programme’. This is fine as far as it goes, and as long as revolutionaries do not confuse it with the Marxist programme of socialist revolution …. No one is arguing that a full revolutionary programme must be presented publicly at all times: that would be absurd sectarian propagandism, and is why the method of the Transitional programme was developed by Trotsky. However, as night follows day, these quite different programmes and perspectives will condition the priorities and methods of activity of the new party, and finally decide its character as either reformist or revolutionary.”

Time will tell, according to comrade Hudson, whether the SSP will turn out to be “reformist or revolutionary”. Communists can cut through the Gordian knot. A reformist SML can never give birth to revolutionary organisation. As Jack Conrad wrote of the SSP in last week’s Weekly Worker, “In form and content it will be a reformist-nationalist sect.”

After his lengthy deliberations, comrade Hudson delivers his equivocal judgement:

“To conclude. The SML has a good analysis of the Scottish political situation, a drive to take advantage of a new fruitful situation and healthy appetite for tactical flexibility [sic]. It would be a tragedy if their project could not be carried through whilst maintaining the integrity of revolutionary politics intact.”

He adds:

“What is certain about the Scottish debate is that the establishment of a genuinely broad-based small mass party with a revolutionary current integrated into its leadership, and which adopted a developed action programme at its founding conference, would be a significant step forward for the Scottish working class. Nonetheless, for such a party to play its potentially historic role in the struggle for socialism, the revolutionaries will have to continue as a distinct tendency within it in order to transform it into a revolutionary party.”

The real “tragedy” lies in the fact that organisations like SO have allowed themselves to become fellow travellers of a project which pivots on the central idea that there is a distinctively Scottish road tosocialism. Indeed in Scotland, SO’s comrades have joined the extreme nationalist wing of SSA/SSP. Hence the disinterested advice SO proffers SML on the dangers of liquidationism should be read as a plea to its own people. You can sprout any reactionary nonsense you want ... but please, please, keep paying your subs. That appears to be the message.

Don Preston