Political problems, political solutions
Royston Bull’s election as SLP vice president demands a principled response
Our friend and comrade Dave Craig raised some interesting and pertinent questions in his recent article on developments in the Socialist Labour Party (Weekly Worker January 14). Since Royston Bull’s election as its vice-president at the Manchester special congress in November 1998 there has been considerable debate about how best to respond. The Revolutionary Democratic Communist Tendency itself divided over the issue at our last meeting. Not, it should be stressed, in strategic terms. More over tactical details.
Comrade John Bridge submitted a short substituting amendment and this was opposed by the mover of the motion - ie, the Revolutionary Democratic Group. The Bridge amendment united the CPGB and was carried by a big majority. The RDG proceeded to split down the middle when it came to the final vote.
Comrade Craig is clear. Bull should be investigated by an SLP control commission, sacked “from his post” and “expelled” - all because of his unacceptable views on homosexuality. Incidently this call to purge Bull is a new departure for the RDG. The CPGB is also clear. Bull and co must be ruthlessly “exposed”. We continue to urge SLP members to organise a democratic rebellion, to break politically with Bull and the whole stinking corpse of Scargillism.
The difference between us might appear only one of nuance. Nevertheless comrade Craig’s approach neatly squares with the organisational demands of the Fourth International Supporters Caucus and its followers in the SLP’s ‘Appeal’ faction.
These spurned courtiers want Bull expelled and themselves reinstated. Arrogantly they call upon general secretary Scargill to unilaterally reverse the defeat of their candidate, Patrick Sikorski, by Bull and his ‘Campaign to support Scargill and the national leadership of the SLP’ bloc. In London, under Fisc president Brian Heron, the ‘Appeal’ faction have resorted to crude blackmail. Unless Scargill immediately removes Bull, there will be no SLP slate for the European elections in the capital.
What is so objectionable about Bull and his cohorts around the cut-and-paste Economic and Philosophic Science Review? It is hard to know exactly where to start. Essentially the EPSR faction espouses an extreme, not to say bizarre, form of economism. Virtually every democratic issue - from Scotland to homosexual equality - is vehemently denounced as a diversion from the catastrophic collapse of capitalism and inevitable revolution. A consoling outlook directly inherited from Bull’s years as a functionary in Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party. Another characteristic WRP trait is fawning before the ‘great leader’ and a rabid loathing of every leftist group, albeit nowadays given an anti-Trotskyite twist by Bull. In fact the EPSR’s original Trotskyism simply flipped into its Stalinite opposite. Thus the collapse of the so-called workers’ states in Eastern Europe and the USSR is explained away by the weakness of the means of oppression. The KGB should have been “stronger”. The Berlin Wall “higher”.
How to sum up Bull’s approach to homosexuals? Reactionary? Undoubtedly. Unscientific? Certainly. Prejudiced? Definitely. His press carries dark warnings about homosexual cliques. Their predilections for children. Their unnatural vices and practices. But he is not out to unnecessarily persecute or discriminate. That is, if homosexuals shun campaigning, hide their sexuality and join the Scargillite crusade in the sure knowledge that the end of capitalism will remove the sordid breeding ground for the homosexual “perversion”.
Till recently Fisc and the ‘Appeal’ faction found none of this objectionable. No polemic nor hint of disapproval. When they were a faction in power circulation of the EPSR was tolerated. Indeed the EPSR was used, particularly in Greater Manchester, to witch hunt communists. This had the full blessing and encouragement of the ‘Appeal’ faction. Only when Fisc was ousted was it suddenly discovered that Bull and the EPSR were “homophobes” (the Campaign for a Democratic SLP held a fringe meeting on the question as the 2nd Congress with Peter Tatchell as main speaker - no Fiscite saw fit to attend). Yet now on the basis of this high crime against political correctness the ‘Appeal’ faction demand expulsion. In other words Fisc and the ‘Appeal’ faction have conveniently ‘discovered’ Bull’s homophobia and for their own narrow ends are baying for the only fitting punishment. Instead of winning a rational argument they rely instead on the bigotry fostered by local government-style PC. It does not matter about the past, the facts or freedom of debate. Bull is a homophobe and therefore must burn.
Scargill understands this bureaucratic method perfectly. But he has no intention, for the moment, of throwing his second in command to the flames. He has though moved to prevent a war of words or at least curb the factional activities of his minions. At January’s national executive committee he got a motion “overwhelmingly” passed calling upon Bull’s EPSR to close down - denounced by Socialist News writer Don Hoskins of the EPSR as something “on a par with the most draconian book-burning demands of the inquisition or the Nazis” (see p4). Failing that, its publishers are obliged to maintain a complete silence on the SLP and not offend anyone’s sensibilities when it comes to women or gays. Just to be fair, Scargill issued an edict ordering the ‘Appeal’ faction to stop its agitation and dissolve. Having received no “satisfactory” assurances, its leaders - Brian Heron, Carolyn Sikorski, Terry Dunn and Helen Drummond - are to face trial before a Scargill ‘control commission’.
We critically defend Fisc and its allies. But we accuse them of hypocrisy. They only issued their call for organisational measures against Bull after he democratically replaced Patrick Sikorski. What then are we to make of the RDG? It only issued its call for organisational measures against Bull after the Fiscites. In order to excuse what might perhaps unfairly be construed as tailism comrade Craig is reduced to branding the CPGB as a mix of “libertarians” and those merely concerned to have “clean hands”. The implication is clear. CPGB comrades supposedly aspire towards a “party of the whole class” in which “every kind of reactionary and chauvinist prejudice” is tolerated. The RDG, in contrast, fights for a “vanguard party”.
To put the record straight, let me “clarify exactly” where we stand - as requested by comrade Craig. The Communist Party is a process. Scientific ideas are the dominant ideas to the extent that there is a culture of open debate, polemical struggle and continuous questioning of established truths. Under such fertile conditions advanced theory can go from being the property of lone individuals to the democratically agreed practice of the whole.
Backward ideas exist. That is inevitable. Development is uneven. A mass Communist Party will have members carrying all sorts of ideological baggage. The comrades must be kept and at the same time their old notions progressively shed. That can be done effectively only through a combination of political education and the actual day-to-day work of Party-building organised around the highest obtainable programmatic and theoretical level.
The suggestion that the millions-strong CPGB necessary to make a successful revolution in a country like Britain would exclude those holding backward ideas - eg, green irrationalism, nationalist sentiments, retrogressive attitudes towards women or homosexuals - is simply untenable. That does not denote libertarianism however. The CPGB operates according to the tenets of democratic centralism. Every member, no matter what their particular opinions, is expected, as a matter of discipline, to accept the programme as the basis of joint activity and to fully and conscientiously carry out agreed actions - ie, by congress, central committee, aggregate, cell or those appointed to act in their name. It should also be stressed that anyone whose main purpose consisted of propagating backward prejudices would quickly be shown the door. The guiding principle can nevertheless be encapsulated by the slogan, ‘unity of action, freedom of criticism’. Put another way, the Party is an organism for advanced ideas to combat and overcome backward ideas.
But what sort of political formation is the SLP? It is no vanguard party. Previously comrade Craig has described it, or called for it to become, a communist-Labour party. In fact the SLP is better classified as Scargillite. Politically it is a unique amalgam of anti-EU national socialism, Stalinism, NUMism and MacDonaldite anti-communism, ruled over by a single, all-powerful personality. It is then a vehicle not for socialism, but a would-be labour dictator.
Comrade Craig states that the SLP “has had a positive impact on the socialist movement”. “There is little doubt,” he says, “in my mind that [the break of Scargill from the Labour Party] has helped to persuade the SWP, for example, to stand candidates.” I beg to differ. Surely the overriding factor in terms of the SWP is the permanent right shift of New Labour. Either way, the impact of the SLP has in many respects been negative. Let us simply ask ourselves whether or not its existence encourages or discourages further splits from Labour. Unfortunately at present the balance tilts towards the latter, not the former.
The reasons are plain to see. Firstly, it has failed electorally and anatomically. There has been no breakthrough. Members exist in tiny, non-functioning constituency branches or unknowingly as trade union block votes. Secondly, it has failed as a unity project. The SLP is famously sectarian. Scargill is against electoral unity or cooperation as a matter of principle. Thirdly, it has failed democratically. There is an absence of the barest minimum of democratic procedure or control from below. Members have been voided by decree. Others unofficially expelled. Congresses are a farce. One retired miners’ association - which naturally Scargill holds in his back pocket - can decide everything. Fourthly, Socialist News has failed. Circulation is abysmal. In terms of debate and intellectual level it scores zero. It vies with The New Worker and The Socialist for the title of the dullest paper on the left.
Under these circumstances it is strange that comrade Craig and the RDG display such an affinity towards the SLP. After all here is a party whose delegates gave Bull a majority (without the intervention of the notorious North West, Cheshire and Cumbria Miners Association). Which elected a batch of EPSRers, together with the Stalin Society’s Harpal Brar and son, Ranjeet, and gave Scargill a free ride along with his customary standing ovation.
Instead of echoing the bureaucratic call to expel Bull - no matter how dressed up in the garb of a control commission - communists inside and outside the SLP should be resolutely exposing Bull’s thinking - and not only on homosexuality - as wrong and reactionary. That is the only hope of educating and constructing a viable majority that can replace him and the whole incumbent leadership.
It should be mentioned that the CPGB has been perfectly consistent in its attitude towards Bull and the EPSR. Like comrade Craig we too “defend the right to publish for all members”. Not because we preach ‘live and let live’. On the contrary. We are determined to create the best conditions for exterminating backward ideas. It was on just such a basis that the CPGB, along with the RDG, supported the Revolutionary Platform at the SLP’s 1st Congress. Incidentally Bull and his chums were then anti-Scargill and formed a constituent part of that bloc.
With the full knowledge of the RDG our Provisional Central Committee even challenged Bull to take up CPGB membership. At the Community University in Swansea in 1996 he agreed in principle. National organiser Mark Fischer visited the Bull mansion in Stockport to explain terms and conditions. Bull would have freedom to publish, but as a Party task he was to be a regional Weekly Worker journalist (Bull has a record of employment with a range of provincial bourgeois papers). We commissioned a test piece on the Liverpool dockers’ dispute. The result - an EPSR-style tirade, characterising the strike as an “anachronism”. We stuck it in as a letter under the name, Ben Tully (Weekly Worker October 10 1996). That elicited a protest note from Jimmy Nolan, chair of the Liverpool dockers, “taking issue” with what he saw as a scurrilous attack on the strike (October 17 1996). Bull also informed us that he was willing to work as a Weekly Worker journalist for cash. We flatly and openly rejected this ultimatum - an event which coincided with him throwing in his lot with Scargill and the witch hunters (see SL Kenning Weekly Worker November 21 1996). Our ways parted.
What if Bull had joined? Would we have excused him from fighting anti-homosexual prejudice? No. Would we have let him off distributing election material demanding equal rights? No. Would he have been freed from the exacting task of winning the working class to take the lead in all democratic struggles. No.
Had he carried out his duties as a CPGB member but still kept his backward views, he would have been fought politically all along the line. We do not offer such elements peace, but the sword. If he had refused to perform his duties, then it would be perfectly legitimate to consider expulsion. Especially if he persisted in justifying himself in his own factional press.
Were we right to challenge Bull with CPGB membership? I think we were right. His manner of refusal showed him to be little more than an unprincipled huckster. Are we right to publish the EPSR views of Socialist News writer Don Hoskins in this issue? I think we are right. Not only has he broken Scargill’s “demands for silence” using the Weekly Worker, but in so doing he provides yet more ammunition for those such as comrade Phil Sharpe, who is doing such a splendid job in dissecting the whole EPSR Anschauung.
Fundamentally the problem in the SLP comes down to politics, not organisation. Bull was elected not through some trick or deficiency in the SLP constitution, but because of woeful political backwardness. We believe that such a political problem needs a political solution.